I would say strap in, but I think that Max would disapprove of seat-belts! It’s time to review the post-apocalyptic madness that is Mad Max: Fury Road.
It’s been thirty years since Max Rockansky has graced our screens in the Tina Turner scored “Beyond the Thunderdome” and in that time Hollywood has changed significantly. The last time Max rode out into the post-apocalyptic wasteland of the future outback, muscular heroes were all the rage with Arnie beginning his climb to action hero fame with “Commando” and Stallone ruling the roost with “Rocky IV” and “Rambo: First Blood Part II”, there were virtually no superhero movies to speak of and sequels were still a fairly rare commodity. Now that Max has reappeared he is competing with some of the most financially successful movies of all time and the cinematic world seems to be made of little other than sequels, prequels, reboots, spin-offs and shared universes. Luckily Max himself has changed to keep up with the times. Long gone is Mel Gibson, whose age and rather public alcohol-fuelled, anti-semetic melt-downs have made him significantly less bankable in this century than he was in the last. Now the gruff, intense and terse Aussie anti-hero’s road-warrior leathers are filled by Tom Hardy.
The film starts out by combatting the main problem it faces in this day and age; The problem of the long gap since the last instalment and relative lack of current pop-culture reference. Mad Max is no Star Wars! This is tackled with an opening monologue to set up the character and the vast, sand-blasted wasteland that he calls home. This is probably the last calm moment that the film has for a good hour and a half. From this point on its V-8s roaring, sand billowing from beneath oversized wheels and a range of grotesque characters that is almost as stunning as the sheer amount of action that is blasted out of the screen at you. Normally by now I would have given you an idea of what the set up for the ongoing plot is, but this is where we hit a major speed-bump that even the supercharged monstrosities on show here would struggle with. This film really does not linger on setting up a strong story or even really giving you much in the way of character development. Other than the opening monologue the next time we actually get much in the way of backstory to any characters or the world they inhabit is about two thirds of the way into the film. I’m all for getting down to the action, getting the film moving and showing rather than telling, but the lack of ten minutes at the start to really set up who is who and why they are doing what they are doing means that it feels like the film sets up to try and tell a serious life or death story, but then it forgets all that in favour of of an orgy of rusted-steel and howling V8’s.
This brings me to the characters, such as they are. Furiousa , played brilliantly by Charlize Theron, is not only strong, female and completely without need of male assistance but is also missing a limb and arguably the main protagonist of the movie. It is a sad insight into the way that Hollywood has worked until now that having a main character who is not whole of body is such a shock at first. Looking past that though, I have to ask why such a striking and interesting character as Furiosa is given literally no back story other than an extra whispering that she is a warlord who works for the main bad-guy. Her decision to do what she does, which kicks off the main part of the movie, is literally never explained and we are just supposed to either accept it or come up with our own explanation. There are hints here and there, but they are too fragmented to allow you to construct your own backstory for her and give her the depth that Theron is clearly trying to show.
Max himself suffers from the same problem, as well as being virtually pointless for the majority of the run-time. This film hinges on you rooting for Max, but aside from a few hints that he lost his family and is really not a happy person in the opening monologue there is very little else to go on. I understand that we are meant to then be shown how much of a distrustful and broken person he is, but the lack of concentration on anything other than the action on show prevents this from really ever coming into focus, despite Tom Hardy’s best efforts. Instead we are left with a gruff anti-hero caricature whose accent seems to veer from Australian to South African and through various parts of the US before coming back to Aussie. This is a pity, because when he finally steps up and starts to add to the plot I found myself being a little shocked that someone who up until now had basically been a background character was thrust into the foreground and given so much responsibility for how the plot finally draws to a close. This is not to say that there are not memorable moments for the good guys, indeed there are a group of bikers who very nearly steal the whole film when they appear, but again they suffer from not being given enough time to really fill out their characters.
So, if the goodies are a bit of a wash, what do we find when we come to the antagonists of the film? They are a bunch of grotesques the like of which we have not been shown since the last “The Hills Have Eyes” remake. The superb design work that has gone into the costumes and characters shines through the constant dust and exhaust fumes, but this is basically where that work ends. The main bad guy, Immortan Joe, is bad. You can tell this from the impressive rictus grin on his face mask and the fact that he has his own personal army of “War Boys”. That’s about it. Again this stunted the impact of those beautiful action scenes for me as I had no real reason to root for the heroes to beat him until fairly late on in the film. I will say that the War Boys themselves are delightfully demented and completely devoted to Joe and the brutal religion of the automobile that he appears to have set up to control them. The fact that the steering wheel is an item of worship for them is a nice touch. They spend most of the movie throwing themselves into suicidal attacks on the heroes’ convoy like post-apocalyptic kamikaze. Nicholas Hoult plays one War Boy, Nux, who actually ends up getting a bit of an arc in the film. He is a tragic character who is desperate to die in the service of Joe, but seems to keep missing his opportunities. His plaintive need to prove himself worthy of someone’s love is actually quite touching in places and provides some much needed emotion to the proceedings. Unfortunately the rest of the bad guys are just that, bad people who are basically space-fillers and cannon-fodder for the never-ending meat-grinder that is this movie. It feels as though there is a world behind this movie that is rich and worth exploring, but we miss out on that because of the movie’s dedication to filling as much of its screen time with things moving fast and going “BOOM!”.
So, finally on to the action itself. As an audience we are regularly served up a spectacle that is mostly computer generated and a director and his effects house have to work pretty hard to make an audience forget that what they are watching does not exist outside of a hard disk nowadays. This is Fury Road’s biggest strength, and one it plays to for most of its running time; virtually everything that is going on is real. Real cars, real environment and real impact. Eyes that have become used to becoming slightly glazed when the CGI kicks in during an action scene will be opening wide with the sheer level of vehicular carnage that makes up most of this film. I got the feeling that the stunt-team on this production was having the time of their lives. There are things going on that I would never have imagined possible, let alone be attempted without at least maiming most of the cast and crew. Now even the best action can be let down by poor direction, but luckily George Millar has not lost any of his craft since the last time he was putting Max on the screen. The camera seems to revel in being down amongst the dirt, rust, steel and rubber of these cobbled together monstrosities as they collide and chase one another across the red sand. The camera sweeps, whips and smashes its way through the carnage that is going on around it, regularly picking out little moments between the antagonists before pulling back to give a feel of the scale of the madness that is on display. Entire convoys of ragged, brutalistic vehicles race across the desert trying their best to smash one another into the big scrapheap in the sky. I was often left wondering how anyone corralled all this speeding metal into something that even resembled a scene without anyone becoming a casualty in the process. Special mention should go out once again to the design team, who have made vehicles all feel as though they’ve been put together from junk ripped from the carcasses of burnt out hulks of more civilised vehicles. Spikes, razor edges and insanely huge engines are here in abundance and they add more to the distinctive feel of this film than any other part of the production. Many boy-racers will be walking out of the cinema thinking that rust is the new chrome and that cars that don’t spout flame are boring. Alongside the action, which is busy making your eyes water, there is the soundtrack, which is trying its best to punch its way past your ear-drums to drill itself directly into your brain. Drums, electric guitars and what often sound like chainsaws all mix together to create a soundtrack that Hell would be proud to play on a Saturday night. Make no mistake, this film is a complete assault on your senses. But it’s not all noise, in fact there are moments in this film that are truly beautiful to look at. Lingering long shots of the outback as it fades towards the sky are interspersed throughout the quieter moments of the movie, and they are as much of a balm to the eyes and mind as the lack of the hammering soundtrack is to the ears, sadly they are all too rare and therein lies the final major problem with this film. The movie is the best part of two hours long, but it feels much longer because it rarely ever comes down from the high gear of the action scenes. This film seems to have forgotten to use the action to underline the story it is trying to tell and to add punch and emotional weight to key scenes. Instead it bludgeons you with ever more mad automotive shenanigans until you are left an uncaring zombie who just needs to go somewhere quiet to reset.
To sum up; this is a movie that I really wanted to enjoy, and there are points where I was completely blown away by the action on show, but the fact that it is overlong and there is so little in the way of any characterisation to keep my interest meant that I left the cinema feeling not only battered and stunned, but surprisingly disappointed. There are moments of genius and real originality on show, not only in the action, but in the intriguing world that it takes place in. There is definitely an amazing movie somewhere in this film, but it needs digging out from under the sheer weight of the mangled metal that assaults you for the majority of its run time. If you are someone who can switch off and just enjoy action for its own sake and not worry about things like motivations or character development then this may very well be the film for you, unfortunately I couldn’t do that, so for me this film will remain in the category of “near miss”.
Two Moons out of Five. Not so great.