Full Disclosure: my wife and I went to see Pitch Perfect 2, but it was sold out. So we reluctantly purchased tickets for the latest Mad Max movie. I have never been fan of the series. The bleakness and ugliness of that universe never appealed to me. So it was with a fair amount of reluctance that I sat down to watch the Mad Max: Fury Road.
And it was thrilling.
The insanity of the world created by writer/director George Miller belies an amazingly tight narrative. Most action movies are a series of different explosive action set pieces. Fury Road is essentially one long, exhilarating action chase scene.
The story begins with Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) being run down and caught by a group of "war boys" who worship a crazy cult leader called "Immortan Joe" (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Joe runs a wasteland compound where he controls the flow of fresh water, keeping his people dependent on him. He keeps an economic relationship with other feudal kingdoms of "Gastown" and the "Bullet Farm." His crazed war boys believe that if they die in glorious battle for Joe that they will forever in Valhalla. Max happens to be O-Negative blood type and so is set said as a "blood bag" to refresh the blood of the irradiated war boys, particularly the zealous Nux (Nicholas Hoult).
All of this set up is told incredibly efficiently so as to set up the main story. Joe sends a caravan to Gastown lead by Imerator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). But when she suddenly goes off course (for reasons we discover later), Joe summons the full strength of Gastown, the Bullet Farm, and all of his war boys to pursue them. Nux, still in need of Max's blood, hooks his "blood bag" to the front of his car and thus the great chase begins.
Much has been already written about the epic car stunts in this film and they are not hyperbolic. Much of the film was done with practical effects rather than CGI, which gives the action a rawness and weight and visceral punch. You can feel the pressure of acceleration and you feel rocked with each crash. This is a film of a young and hungry director, which is what impresses me so much about 70-year-old George Miller's fast and furious spectacle. It is crazy in a way that should be outright silly. But when the inmates run the asylum, normal logic is thrown out the window. The production design drips with insanity that follows from some kind of crazed function. Why is there a giant truck with 6 drummers and a flame-throwing guitar player? Because this is the world that is broken!
The performances are outstanding. The script trusts that the actors and director will be able to convey enough meaning and emotion with very little. Hardy is great as Max. Mel Gibson is one of the finest actors I have ever seen, but Hardy brings the same level of intensity and anger, all the while making the part his own. You truly believe that Max could either shoot a frightened woman in the face or risk his life to save her. Hardy makes this contradictory nature believable. And the smallest gestures of kindness or encouragement carry incredible weight.
Theron is also great and honestly should get an Oscar nomination for this performance. She reminded me of what Russell Crowe did in Gladiator. She is smart, strong, and stoic. She uses a cold, violent calculous to save those that she can. Both she and Hardy have to carry the movie with mostly their non-verbals, which they do flawlessly (which should be no surprise for anyone who saw Hardy's amazing performance as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises).
The world is violent, disgusting, and ugly. The movie is R-Rated and rightly so. The violence is bloody and over-the top. But the movie ironically uses a great deal of discretion. A key element of the story is the sexual enslavement of women and yet the movie never shows you the women being abused in this way. The movie is an odd style of gratuitous violence that is not exploitative.
One of the things I was surprised by in this story was the emphasis on human redemption. There are truly evil, despicable people in this movie. And yet even those that appear brainwashed beyond any hope show signs of humanity. Max himself narrates at the beginning that he has been reduced to one instinct: survive. But despite himself, he cannot let go of his nagging conscience. Even when it makes no sense, he must do what is right.
And this makes the struggle for virtue so intense and powerful. It is easy to be moral when life is care-free. It feels impossible when the world has gone mad. This movie makes the struggle for basic humanity feel heroic and epic when set in relief against this wasteland.
I especially love something Max says late in the movie about hope. Hope cannot be something that is empty wishing and wanting. Hope has to be based in resolution. You have to be willing to fix what is broken. Hope, without the will to work for the change, is empty.
In the end, Mad Max: Fury Road is the perfect escapist film for anyone who loves over-the-top action and the fun of some bloody mayhem (with a sprinkling of redemption on the side).
4 out of 5 stars.