Cut to the Chase
By Adam Nayman

Mad Max: Fury Road
Dir. George Miller, U.S., Warner Bros.

Way back in 1979, when George Miller was but an upstart fresh out of the emergency ward—he was trained as a doctor before becoming a filmmaker—the idea of a dusty, dystopian sci-fi cinema was still relatively fresh. And even better yet, it was a relatively practical option for an independent Australian film crew. Without much of actual value to place in front of the camera, Miller and his collaborators created a narrative space where the absence of shiny objects and elaborate structures was a signifier of apocalyptic authenticity. A legitimately cheapjack thriller with a lean, hungry look, an ace stunt team, and an incandescent star, Mad Max spawned two (increasingly large) sequels and enough unofficial imitators to become ensconced as a modern genre classic—and thus a prime candidate for a state-of-the-art studio reboot.

Which brings us to Mad Max: Fury Road, a film whose onscreen world is as desperately impoverished as its forebears, albeit at a cost that surely outstrips their combined budgets. (The price tag after twenty years of development struggles and seven years of production delays is reportedly around $150 million.) It’s easy enough to sniff that Miller’s return to material he once brought off with industrious lo-fi flourish suffers from gigantism—that he’s become Lord Humongous himself. But even such a reductive reading contains a kernel of truth. Like the recent efforts of the Wachowskis—probably the only contemporary filmmakers who could go toe-to-toe with Miller in the putatively progressive politics and ridiculous character names departments—Fury Road comes on strong as a critique of decadent spectacle whilst doubling as an example of same. When (original Mad Max alum) Hugh Keays-Byrne’s gas-masked King Immortan Joe magnanimously douses his huddled, half-starved subjects with jets of water and smiles as they lap it up, the suggestion of haves and have-nots is powerfully unsubtle. It’s also as applicable to the present tense of global film production as some imagined postnuclear future.

Miller has spoken passionately about wanting to make a movie of such clean, graphic power that an international audience could watch it without subtitles, but Fury Road is still practically begging to be read between the lines: as an allegory of everything from blood-for-oil to human trafficking to gender politics. On this last point, it gradually mobilizes an army of female warriors called the “Vuvalini” to battle Joe’s leather-bedecked “War Boys,” leading to a literal climactic battle of the sexes that goes further than one might expect in allowing its female combatants to be every bit as ferocious and expendable as their male counterparts. The social commentary here is broad, earnest, and welcome; the trick is that Miller and his cowriters Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris have found a way to work these loftier concerns into what is basically an extended, 120-minute chase sequence, and to generate images that speak eloquently in the absence of dialogue. When Max (Tom Hardy) awakens in the aftermath of the first leg of the story’s demolition derby to discover five beautiful, scantily clad women washing themselves by the side of a stalled oil tanker, it’s at once parodic and pandering. And then with one shot of one nymph’s pregnant belly, smartly destabilizing for a mainstream audience unused to explicit juxtapositions of maternity and sexuality.

The plot of Fury Road, such as it is, is that Max—who is seemingly the same character as the one played three times by Mel Gibson, albeit in an alternate version of the series’ mid-21st-century timeline—becomes passenger and protector for a distaff caravan comprised of five of King Joe’s most fertile captive wives and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a former child abductee herself, who is bent on delivering her cargo to a safe location she calls “the green place.” This guardian role is more or less of a piece with Max’s previous screen persona, except that what’s missing this time out—or maybe just less persuasively dramatized—is the madness. Tom Hardy is an excellent actor, and he’s a good choice for the part physically; in films as varied as Bronson, Warrior, and last year’s solo tour-de-force Locke, Hardy has found a way to stylize his body and his voice into special effects. He’s got the pumped-up look and the lone-wolf body language, but he can’t generate the haunted quality that Gibson brought to the part. His Max is more worn out than crazy, which is appropriate in light of the pummeling his character takes right off the bat—an all-out assault that mirrors Miller’s own intentionally bludgeoning M.O.

On a level of pure craft, Fury Road is never less than impressive and occasionally quite remarkable. Most film critics (this one included) can’t—and shouldn’t—claim to know which of the film’s action sequences were achieved entirely without the aid of CGI, but it sure looks like most of what’s going on is nothing more or less than bodies and vehicles in motion, crisscrossing at close proximity and high velocity. In the seventies and eighties, the stunt work in the Mad Max films was groundbreaking: now it’s a nostalgic throwback. In one of the wittiest visual gags, Max begins the proceedings as a kind of glorified hood ornament, strapped to the front of a beater being driven by the physically frail and philosophically fanatic War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult). It’s more than forty minutes of screen time before Max is free of the chains binding him to Nux and the iron mask muffling his voice, which may be why Hardy’s performance is slightly disappointing. After such a patient, clever build-up, it’s reasonable to expect something more than weary sulking from our hero. In fact, Nux’s arc from wannabe fascist henchman to selfless, sensitive man of action is more affecting than anything that happens to Max. Nux’s early craving for glory also gives this self-consciously dazzling movie its mantra: when he’s first preparing to immolate himself on behalf of his king, he desperately cries out “witness!” as if to kick-start his own legacy as a martyr.

Bearing witness to Miller’s rampaging beast of a movie can make a viewer feel a bit like an innocent bystander caught in a stampede. The editing is so phenomenally fast that the transitions between perspectives—vertiginous crane shots and skull-hugging close-ups— feel almost subliminal. There’s an amazing sense of scale and depth to the cinematography by John Seale, who came out of retirement for this one, and also a brilliantly varied color palette. When Max and his companions drive through a desert at night, the whole screen suddenly swims in an underwater blue, pierced by the low golden glow of lantern light; when King Joe’s convoy gets rolling, they fire up rich, dark, inky flares that turn the skies into an action-painter’s canvas. The filmmakers also use the actors’ bodies as staging areas for drama. Theron’s Furiosa has a mechanical arm, which is clearly visible throughout but is not emphasized until a crucial moment where her physical incompleteness is connected visually to a sense of loss. Similarly, Nux’s skeletal face and body imply a state of living death that’s counteracted by the gradual emergence of his full humanity, at which point Hoult’s full, lissome beauty is allowed to shine out from underneath his pallid complexion.

These and other effective moments don’t happen by accident: they’re the result of clever creative choices yoked to the sort of pragmatic military strategizing necessary for pretty much all megabudget productions. What’s maybe being overstated by the film’s early admirers is the status of Miller’s trademark eccentricity, which is very much in place if not particularly inspired; frankly, the insane intensity of the leopard-seal chase in his animated-but-not-quite-for-kids Happy Feet was more shocking than anything in Fury Road, to say nothing of the alternately manic and melancholy ambience of Babe: Pig in the City, which still looks like some kind of avant-family-movie masterpiece nearly twenty years later. (Who can forget that pit bull intoning forlornly through digitally manipulated lips that “a murderous shadow lies hard across [his] soul”?) The most baroque touches in Fury Road, like the rock band that provides mobile musical accompaniment to the bad guys, fronted by a Juggalo-looking guitarist with a never ending supply of fight-music riffs, are also the most labored.

It’s an evacuation of critical responsibility to affectionately cite or praise Miller for being “crazy,” as if that were all, or nearly enough to get the job done. What he happens to be is competent and confident enough to make a film flush with heavy machinery, both onscreen and off, that doesn’t feel like it fell off an assembly line. Hopefully, quality will out and Fury Road will be a hit, because there’s a lot more riding on this one than the previous road warrior ever had to bear.