If you’ve relished the Mad Max series, your heart will leap in Mad Max: Fury Road the first time a “War Rig” made of leftover car and truck frames (human skulls affixed to the grille) or a turbo-charged, weaponized jeep swerves into the foreground and then suddenly roars off into the distance at a 45-degree angle while the camera continues on its scorching horizontal track. It’s a signature move by director George Miller, who gets scary-close (he’s fucking with us) and then says, “Eat my dust.”
That dust tastes damn good. The majority of sequels have no reason for being apart from sequel money, but watching this fourth Mad Max, I could sense after roughly .0001 seconds that the 70-year-old Aussie director has been revving his engines for a long, long time, itching to get back to the blacktop and deliver even wilder automotive mayhem. After all, his last two films, Happy Feet and Happy Feet 2, centered on animated dancing penguins. He has some serious punk cred to restore.
As you no doubt know from all the buzz, most critics think Miller has his cred back and then some, and they’ve given him a hero’s welcome. That gives me happy feet. The man made Max Max, The Road Warrior, Lorenzo’s Oil, and especially Babe: Pig in the City, which is like Charlotte’s Web retold by Dickens. (As a sequel, a box-office megabomb, and a film starring a pig, it has never gotten its due.) And Mad Max: Fury Road is certainly a blast and a half: You don’t just watch it, you rock out to it. How satisfied you’ll be after all the “wow!”s and “whew!”s will depend on how fine you are with a film that starts in the middle of the story and is basically a long chase. I saw it twice and liked it vastly more the second time around, when I’d adjusted my expectations and had my bearings from the get-go. Then it became about digging the spectacle — not to mention the hilarious sexual politics.
This is not, it should be said, a “reboot.” It’s the same Mad Max, post-Thunderdome, though now played by Tom Hardy, Mel Gibson having been judged too old and, more important, too genuinely mad to continue in the series that launched him to stardom 36 years ago. “My world is fire and blood,” says Max in voice-over, standing on a cliff, at one with the poisoned, postapocalyptic wasteland, his face hidden by a swarm of filthy hair. He stomps a big boot down on a scurrying lizard, snatches it up, and shoves it in his mouth: crunch.
A blizzard of images evokes his inner life: bombs, bodies, the killing of his wife and child. The little girl calls to him in visions, which is strange because I remember his child being (a) a toddler and (b) a boy — but it was a long time and many bodies ago, and I might be wrong. Or maybe she’s not his child but a sort of emissary from the world of child spirits. Miller does a cool, stroboscopic fun-house effect with the little girl’s face — now flesh, now bone, now flesh again. Max wants like mad to be emotionally dead, numb to the carnage, but this moppet keeps jolting him back to life.
The prologue in which Max is chased, captured, tattooed, branded, and put in a cage by raiders from a towering citadel is stunningly well done — particularly if you see the film in 3-D, which Miller uses like a macabre ringmaster, chucking arrows, bones, and parts of cars and bodies at you. This citadel — known far and wide as “the Citadel” — is presided over by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a sickeningly disfigured tyrant who stands high above his sheeple, promising them immortal life in the corridors of Valhalla while taunting them for their dependence. (He makes them beg for water.) Actually, everyone in the Citadel is sickeningly disfigured, emaciated, or studded with tumors from living in a radioactive landscape. But Immortan Joe takes the uranium cake. His flesh is mottled and covered with ... yecchy stuff. In a steel mask notable for its Neanderthal set of choppers, he looks like a walking shrunken head topped with a white fright wig.
This is all awesome, but I actually had a hard time getting past my awe and into the movie. Max isn’t just emotionally remote. He’s matted with dirt and kept in shadow. He’s chained to the front of a truck, everything below his eyes concealed by a steel face-cage. It’s mighty peculiar that here, as in The Dark Knight Rises, an actor with maybe the most fascinating visage in movies spends so much time behind a mask. You do get a lot from those eyes, which signal sadness and desperation. But the lips are where it’s at. They’re not just fashionably pillowy. They’re neo-Brando blubbery. They signal a swelling, an excess of emotion. They make you understand why the sounds that come out of his mouth are not always recognizable as English: What words could do justice to that much feeling? Casting Hardy as a man who shrouds his emotions and then covering his face is just ... mad. Half an hour into Mad Max: Fury Road, I felt as if the nominal hero and I hadn’t been properly introduced.
There is, of course, another hero. Heroine. The story proper kicks off when Immortan Joe’s top raider — Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron with a shaved head and one steel arm — sets off on a mission in a ramshackle War Rig before suddenly changing course. Joe checks on his breeders, but they’re gone. He screams to Heaven and orders up his army. The chase is on!
Wait. Who is Furiosa? (She has barely said a word.) Who — or what — are the breeders? Who is the old woman shrieking at Immortan Joe? By now it’s clear that Miller’s strategy is to throw you into the tumultuous action and only later show you what’s at stake and why you should care. He thinks he’s cunningly withholding major details to keep you guessing, but there isn’t enough information to guess from before he, well, cuts to the chase. It’s backwards storytelling.
Call me bourgeois, but I like a little more context for my mayhem, which is why I was more involved the second time, when I knew Furiosa, knew the breeders, and knew a bit more about why Max was on the front of a truck connected by an IV line to a skinny, bald guy with a white face and blackened eye sockets — who looks on first (and second) glance exactly like the hundred other skinny bald guys with white faces and blackened eye sockets but turns out to be a major character called Nux (Nicholas Hoult).
Mad Max: Fury Road wakes up, dramatically speaking, when Max and Furiosa meet, with (rousingly staged) fisticuffs at first but soon with more affection. Slightly more, anyway. Both their hearts having been tanned into leather by tragedy, they’re wary of connection, and Furiosa isn’t too trusting of men to begin with. It’s an extraordinary performance by Theron, who barely emotes but whose hardness is broken by glints of guilt and grief. It’s a mighty moment when, given terrible news, she staggers towards a titanic sand dune — it rises from nowhere, but nothing less would be worthy of her — and sinks to her knees in despair. At time like that, you might wish the film had been called Mad Maxine and had followed her from the start.
It’s a woman-centric movie. Furiosa is fleeing across the vast wasteland in search of a matriarchal oasis she calls the “green place of many mothers.” And those breeders turn out to be a pampered harem of willowy model types (one brown-haired, one white-blonde, one redhead, one tall and black-haired, one smaller and more racially exotic) tasked with bearing Immortan Joe healthy children. Why a group of women so skinny they look as if they’d pitch off the side of a runway from lack of food should be so evolutionarily desirable in a time of sickness and starvation is a mystery — but not really much of one given the high level of wowza on display. Maybe the best visual joke in the movie is when Max staggers out of the desert and beholds them for the first time, shimmering in the heat, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoe Kravitz, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton, and Riley Keough in skimpy, shorty, filmy dresses, hosing one another off in lyrical semi-slow motion.
Mad Max: Fury Road is actually full of brilliant visual jokes, its desert a mythic stage for a punk-rococo circus of freaks. Behold the great pile of steering wheels on which the bald warriors descend, each man bearing his own away with reverence, as if it’s Excalibur. There’s a little tree in the middle of the desert that looks like it’s waiting for Vladimir and Estragon. The sight of a half dozen or so bongo drummers on the back of a War Rig is a marvelous setup for the revelation of the masked, heavy-metal rocker guitarist tied to the front, his instrument belching flames at moments of peak bloodlust. (The authors of Dogme 95 would be pleased: Miller has incorporated his musicians into the action.) In the climactic, high-speed road battle, warriors on long poles bend in and out of the frame throwing bombs and snatching up women: It’s as if you’d smoked weed and started watching an old Western and suddenly the stagecoach turned into a truck full of supermodels and the charging Injuns vampire acrobats. The knowledge that the vampire acrobats are mostly real stuntmen moving really, really fast instead of 1s and 0s in a computer adds exponentially to the WTF quotient.
Miller clearly felt he needed to raise the stakes — to top himself — in Mad Max: Fury Road, and the road fury is, indeed, packed with multiple, crazy-funny variables. But at the end of the road I have to admit that I prefer the cleaner, sharper climax of The Road Warrior, which has no CGI whatsoever. You lose things in the clutter.
That said, Miller has a trick up his sleeve that he didn’t three decades ago: grannies on motorcycles. It turns out that what compelled him to make this fourth Mad Max was the notion of a nurturing, matriarchal society far removed from the grotesque sadism of male-warrior culture. The gorgeously weatherbeaten old women who roar out of the wasteland to greet Furiosa and Company tolerate Max and show some affection for Nux — the bald, mortally ill, white-painted War Boy who longed to die in battle but was so lovably clumsy that he wound up on the side of the girls. But these tough old birds don’t want or need men, those disease-carrying homicidal brats who turned a world that was once a garden into a nuclear wasteland. Also, the old ladies gaze on those cute little models as if it would be really nice to curl up with them under the stars.
It’s a wonderful joke that so-called men’s-rights groups have expressed outrage over Mad Max: Fury Road — so wonderful that I’d suspect the studio of cooking up the controversy by itself if I didn’t know that such morons actually exist. In their eyes, Miller has committed an unforgivable sin by appropriating their cultural space to promote femi-Nazism. He has made a movie with more amazing motorcycles than a biker’s rally and more high-decibel mash-ups than a monster truck event: FUCKIN’ A, AWWRIGHT! He has stuffed it with every shape and size of gun imaginable: BOO-YAH! Then he made a bald chick and a bunch of grannies more potent than an armada of male giants with mighty pecs — who turn out under all the war paint to be squalling babies with disease-ridden pencil dicks. The final battle takes place in a narrow passage through a canyon that looks suspiciously like a stand-in for the gates of Thermopylae. That’s when it really hits you: The Lesbos have taken Sparta!