“All this over a family squabble,” says a character called The Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter) disgustedly about an hour into “Mad Max: Fury Road,” the reboot of the George Miller-Mel Gibson post-apocalypse series that began in 1979 and continued through “Thunderdome” in 1985. And he’s absolutely right—the motivation behind the two hours of mayhem Miller and his new star Tom Hardy provide here is basically a domestic quarrel within a militaristic cult that’s thrived in the global viciousness under the leadership of a gruesomely attired dictator-guru called Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). He’s assembled an army of brainwashed skinhead followers and keeps the peasants in thrall by controlling the water supply.
One might argue about the wisdom of resuscitating this franchise a full thirty years on. But at least you’d have to agree that it’s a blessing to see Miller abandon the tiresome “Happy Feet” series after two installments. And it certainly proves that at seventy he’s as adept at orchestrating potent action sequences as he ever was. “Fury Road” is certainly a grindhouse movie that moves like a house afire. But like its predecessors it remains nothing more than B-movie fare done up to a fare-thee-well, this time with a large budget that allows the action to be even longer, more flamboyant, more complicated and—thanks to the limitless possibilities of CGI—more outrageous than before.
It’s frankly unclear whether the movie is intended as a sequel to the previous pictures or a new start for the series; there’s no reference to the events of the earlier films, and a bunch of recurrent flashbacks, presented almost subliminally, suggest a different past for Max than that previously depicted. What can be definitively said is that the premise is one that turns the movie into what amount to one long chase—and, secondarily, into a tale of female empowerment. Max Rockatansky (Hardy) is introduced as falling into the hands of Joe’s posse of so-called War Boys in their souped-up cars and cycles. He escapes his cage and tries to escape, but after a frantic chase through the cult’s mountainside compound, the Citadel, he’s incarcerated again, and trotted out as a sort of grillwork trophy on one of the vehicles when an emergency arrives.
That comes via the treachery of one of Joe’s lieutenants, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, with a buzz cut), who commandeers a huge tanker she’s supposed to be driving to Gastown to take on fuel and instead goes off road into the open desert. It turns out she’s not only trying to return to her dearly-remembered childhood home, The Green Place, but is taking along Joe’s harem of breeder women—a band of gorgeous young things either pregnant with his offspring or in line to become so, and bearing names like Toast the Knowing (Zoe Kravitz), The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), Capable (Riley Keough), The Dag (Abbey Lee) and Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eaton). Joe and his forces are soon in hot pursuit, with poor Max adorning one of the cars (beside another hosting a heavy-metal guitarist whose instrument belches out flames on particular chords). After the first encounter between Joe’s army and Furiosa, Max gets detached from his perch and—following a confrontation with the femmes—joins them as an ally against their common foe. One of his erstwhile captors, a War Boy called Nux (Nicholas Hoult), will after some skirmishing join their ragtag group as well.
By this time “Fury Road” has turned into what amounts to a 90-minute chase—one that actually reverses direction toward the close and retraces its steps, though not before Furiosa has actually reached her destination (which turns out to be inhabited only by a small band of hearty old women, who join her crew). Max and Nux are now fully committed to fighting alongside Furiosa, and certainly come in handy in more massed encounters with Joe and his forces, which notably include his man-mountain son Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones) and white-faced Slit (Josh Helman). The final prize will be the Citadel itself.
You have to hand it to Miller and his crew—particularly cinematographer John Seale, editor Margaret Sixel and an army of stuntmen (under supervising stunt coordinator Guy Norris and fight coordinator Richard Norton)—for choreographing the action so carefully and cutting it all together with such aplomb. The visual effects artists (supervised by Andrew Jackson) handle their responsibilities expertly too. And Colin Gibson’s production design, the art direction supervised by Richard Hobbs, Lisa Thompson’s sets and Jenny Beavan’s costumes all create an impressive effect, especially in the Citadel scenes and the vehicular oddities. Namibian locations stand in for the Australian ones Miller originally had in mind when rain in the latter turned the desert areas into plains run riot with wildflowers.
Among the cast, those who stand out are Theron, who proves a convincing action heroine and even invests Furiosa with a sense of melancholy despite the fact that her background remains opaque, and Hoult, who brings a similar sense of poignancy to Nux. Hardy is a fine replacement for Gibson, but he can’t bring to Max much more than the same generalized moroseness as Theron does to Furiosa, despite those flashbacks (and some of the earlier scenes have him outfitted with an iron mask, which has the same unfortunate effect of muddying his diction that his Bane getup did). The villains are frankly a disappointment, except for their extravagant outfits and makeup, but the bevy of Joe’s breeding stock make for pleasing eye candy, especially in the scene where Max first comes upon them in the desert.
One has never gone to a “Mad Max” movie expecting any depth, and “Fury Road” is certainly no exception to the rule. It is, however, as efficient an exercise in pure action and visceral excitement as today’s jaded audiences could ask for, though little more than that. But for most that will be enough, not only to secure big boxoffice returns but to ensure a new spate of sequels.