As hard as I tried, I could not get into George Miller’s “Mad Max” or “The Road Warrior.” Although the latter at least proved to be a more developed post-apocalyptic Australia concept with progressive action, it felt like a violent costume party for people who like things with engines. Now, 30 years after “Beyond Thunderdome,” Miller takes his franchise out of the shed for a new ride, and my oh my has it aged well.
The cornerstones of the franchise are most certainly there: excessive violence, over-the-top characters and a story more invested in aesthetics than narrative, but the chassis beneath it all this time is rock-solid and effectively compelling.
Tom Hardy takes over the franchise in “Mad Max: Fury Road” as Max Rockatansky, a lone ranger of sorts haunted by wife and child he failed to protect, and countless others. After being captured by the powder-white War Boys, Max becomes a human blood bag for several War Boys soldiers, who worship Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the villain Toecutter in “Mad Max” back in 1979), an overlord running his own colony who promises those who serve him to the death a place in Valhalla, the afterlife.
In what is supposed to be a routine gas-run, Immortan Joe’s right hand, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) betrays him and veers off the road, making off with Joe’s precious wives as her cargo. He authorizes an all-out chase to run her down and retrieve the wives, a journey Max unwillingly becomes part of.
The plot is a straight shot out of a gun, with just enough of a human element and a couple of complicated heroes to root for, something the previous “Mad Max” films were sorely lacking. The context and character development is still minimal, but Miller and co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris use some creative substitutes, such as Max’s hallucinations of his past, that provide just enough depth to garner the audience’s investment.
Yet the calling card of “Mad Max” and “Fury Road” is the action and the post-apocalyptic trappings. In an era overripe with computer-generated effects, the stunt-driven visuals of “Fury Road” offer something original, in a sense. Miller has always been one of the greats at practical effects and with a little bit of help from modern CGI, he blends the two in a way the feels more real and more explosive.
The imaginative nature of the series also appears to have taken leaps forward. Even in the more ridiculously campy creative choices, such as a the faceless electric guitar player strapped to one of the trucks who gets an unusual amount of screen time, there’s a certain “cool” factor that before just seemed grotesque and frilly. This could simply be that the “Mad Max” look stands the test of time well, that nothing has compared to it in the last 30 years, or it could be that we just don’t get ballsy creativity like this in the blockbuster landscape these days.
The “Mad Max” films have never necessitated great talent, but Hardy, Theron and Nicholas Hoult as a fanatical War Boy named Knux definitely add something to the film. They aren’t asked to do much in the script, but strong choices in facial expressions can tell a story just as well and it’s enough to make “Fury Road” more of a high-stakes grind than a frivolous chain of vehicular stunts.
And for this movie fan, who for years never understood why this franchise held any degree of acclaim, “Fury Road” shows Miller for a true auteur whose twisted little apocalyptic lovechild will likely have a life on screen that surpasses his own.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Directed by George Miller
Written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris
Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult