The solitude of Max (Tom Hardy) has long informed him of the inevitability of such cycles. When he is snatched by rebels in the early moments of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” so little of his reaction revolves around shock or alarm; it’s as if he has come to expect it in the desolate terrain he continues to wander through. Unfortunately, this particular band of renegades is a distinct breed, especially in the sense that their pecking order involves such barbaric principles. An inevitable resistance ensues (Max never was the sort who just sat idly by while in restraints), but the refusal of one man to be a slave is not nearly enough to counteract the antics of a group that seem so ruthless and bloodthirsty, and his streak of bad luck culminates in a scene where he is seen strapped to the front of an artillery vehicle while an IV transports his blood to that of the driver. A search for reasoning in most post-apocalyptic yarns are usually fruitless; by this point in the lives of people who have devolved into primitive degenerates, such perspectives simply blend into the natural order of things.
Is it all a matter of just losing civilized principles though? Or has the lack of order simply exposed the anarchic nature within us all? All of these prospects (and more) are dealt with in implicit detail in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” the fourth film in a franchise about a renegade observer who often stumbles in on feuding societies in the midst of civil war. A good two decades have passed since the last entry into the series, but time has been generous to the potency of the premise; already full throttle into this era of fatalistic undercurrents, we see this idea of a world of remnants and savagery from a more informed state of awareness. Surely George Miller, the director of all four films, senses that possibility himself; otherwise, what would have been the significance of revisiting this story so late in the game, and with such distinct ambition?
If I belabor the point I am attempting to make, it is because “Mad Max: Fury Road” possesses the most elusive of cinematic virtues: it fits no mold other than its own. A mere attempt to validate it feels like pigeonholing its qualities into unnecessary labels. It is visceral, taut, well made, insightful, engrossing, intricate, meticulous, and above all else driven by a creative spirit that sees the material from a space of undaunted enthusiasm. Some will applaud it for being an absolutely riveting audience entertainment, others will marvel at the buried complexity of a multi-faceted story with sly political undercurrents. Further still, some will marvel at its diving technical brilliance, and a few may be drawn to the emotional complexity of a series of very dimensional characters. In whatever capacity you choose to contemplate what is on screen, it is clear that no film being released in theaters right now even approaches that number of possibilities, much less that scope of ambition.
The plot considers each of these qualities in a journey that plays like an excursion through a nightmare that never ends. At the core of that conflict is Max, the quiet and unassuming observer who in the early scenes is snatched by the underlings of “The Citadel,” a kingdom high inside a lone tower of rock that seeks to do little besides conquer, reproduce and build an invulnerable empire. Like Vikings with nothing left to lose, they shuffle on with fatalistic eagerness, and anxiously await the day that their endeavors will lead them to the gates of Valhalla. Unfortunately for the Citadel’s ruthless king (Hugh Keays-Byrne), an uprising among the empire’s women is stirring secretly in the shadows. The silent but perceptive Furiosa (Charlize Theron) tires of bondage and longs for a past of more docile pleasures, and when she steers a convoy of her fellow feminine slaves away from the Fury Road and into the obscurity of a desert wilderness, a lengthy and treacherous chase ensues in which they are pursued at high velocity, and the imprisoned Max bests his captors in order to (almost inadvertently) join the company of the oppressed females.
That lengthy chase, which dominates the bulk of the movie, is one of the most effective uses of action I have seen in a film in many a moon. Not simply content to showcase the road-bound exchanges between hardened women and savage men in pursuit of their “property,” director George Miller frames their trek with impeccable attention to detail, often to the service of narrative details that would otherwise go overlooked in most films that moved as fast. The editing, as an example, is never hasty or disorienting; at top speeds we know exactly what is going on between vehicles on that stretch of open road, and the movie brings riveting clarity to each ambush and narrow escape. Likewise, the special effects are made all the more special by the notion that much of it seems so anchored by legitimate stunt work. Going against the grain of digitized sensation, much of what we view is actually happening, staged for the camera with a choreographic energy that recalls the glory days of film before green screens. And the cinematography by John Seale (whose notable credits are too numerous to list) does the unfathomable: it gives pulsating life to a barren desert, the most unattractive of movie settings. There is a spectacular sequence in the first act that unites these virtues into a marriage of precise skill: the convoy is pursued violently into the enormous cloud of a sandstorm, and the vehicles race at high velocity while the backdrop fills with rapid electrical sparks. How did Miller, now a man in his seventies, find the gusto to be so elaborate? If wisdom is as much a gift to action films as age, then here is a man who has earned yet another merit badge in his long career of extraordinary achievements.
Much of the story itself is too precious to disclose. Many of the central characters are firmly rooted in the psychology of a post-apocalyptic scenario, but what happens to them over the course of these very ambitious 120 minutes is made all the more intense by the peripheral details going on around them. How ironic is it, for instance, that the leader of a place dubbed the “Bullet Farm” attempts to render justice on the open road, and then is blinded by an exploding light on the front of his vehicle? Or that the mutant-like proprietor of “Gas Town” has a mutated limb that literally acts as a lead foot on the gas pedal? So many of our modern Hollywood blockbusters are so absorbed by the futility of their thrills that they often forget to frame them within a thoughtful context. “Mad Max: Fury Road” shatters that perception. It is a rebel among pretenders. And just like its conflicted hero, it is a movie that retains a purity of conviction in the face of guidelines that continue to deteriorate at an unfortunate rate.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Action/Adventure (US); 2015; Rated R; Running Time: 120 Minutes
Tom Hardy: Max
Charlize Theron: Imperator Furiosa
Nicholas Hoult: Nux
Hugh Keays-Byrne: Immortan Joe
Josh Helman: Slit
Produced by Bruce Berman, Graham Burke, Christopher DeFaria, Genevieve Hofmeyr, George Miller, Doug Mitchell, Steven Mnuchin, Iain Smith and P.J. Voeten; Directed by George Miller; Written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris