We need to talk about Max.
After 30 thirty years (is it really that long ago?) he’s back. But actually he’s not. The film franchise may be named after him, but in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD – the fourth road trip in Postapocalyptica – the eponymous road warrior is even more mysterious than ever. Absent, one may even say. Hardy as hardly Max. Hardly there, hardly a word, hardly a hero. But let’s start at the beginning.
This is a startlingly well-made film, with a uniquely impressive story world racked by the same brutal dystopian logic of the previous three. Don’t go looking for any chronological fit though. With thirty years at the panel beater, FURY ROAD has emerged as a total makeover: faster engine, new driver, no rear mirrors. Miller calls it a revisiting.
With no explanation of where, who, why or what, the story revs into life. Max – Tom Hardy rather than Mel Gibson – is captured by the violent War Boys and imprisoned in the Citadel, a community run by the tyrant Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Used as a blood bag by a sickly War Boy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult), Max is strapped to the front of a vehicle and taken on the hunt for renegade gasoline rig driver Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) who’s nicked off with Joe’s five young wives – all being used as breeders. She’s heading for the Green Place, driven by a childhood memory of her mother and sanctuary – somewhere in this desolate land that isn’t dust, bones, metal and grind. In the ensuing road fight, Max joins forces with Furiosa and they head through wilderness roads, yes in a fury, now pursued by the combined forces of the Citadel and the nearby settlements of Gas Town and Bullet Farm.
[Apologies: spoiler alert in the final paragraphs]
It’s a case of ‘there and back again’ for Max, Furiosa and their precious cargo of scantily clad wives – one of whom, Splendid (Rosie Huntingdon-Whiteley) is heavily pregnant. Of course, the road trip is blocked by men of rage and an astonishing collection of the most audaciously designed vehicles Hollywood can buy. It’s a spectacular demolition derby that totally overwhelms every other aspect of the film: characters, narrative, emotion and charm flattened in the dust.
But what a ride: there was a moment as I watched a scene involving a character called Coma the Doof Warrior (dressed in a red jump suit and playing a huge flamethrower guitar) that I was transported back to a being teenager watching Ken Russell’s Tommy. It was a real WTF, I’ve-never-seen-anything-like-that-before moment. Pure cinema magic. A must for big screen viewing, the design of this film is extraordinary – and the work from production designer Colin Gibson and the huge art department will surely result in a stack of awards. And fight choreography in fast moving vehicles has never been this good. Is there an Oscar for a chase sequence? This film is a chase sequence.
But endless action is not enough: the best storytelling finds an entry point for our empathy. As Max, Hardy says little and his character increasingly retreats into the background as you realize that this is Furiosa’s journey. (Yes, Max has visions of a family that are presumably dead that drive him on, but these just get repetitive and annoying.) As for Theron, she plays Furiosa as smart, determined and gritty, but she – like everyone else in the film – spends so much time at the wheel that we never get the feel of her, or the chance to feel for her. And with no explanation of backstory, no witnessing of the key events that kick off the narrative, and no sense of any underlying motivation for the characters (beyond the obvious “get to Green Place”) we have to be dished up the film’s “theme” in far from subtle style. Furiosa – in the film’s worst line of dialogue – tells us she’s seeking “redemption”. And with it’s Arab-Spring ending, as the testosterone and gasoline fuelled madness abates, a wise woman clutches a small bag of seeds and corpulent breast-feeding wet nurses release the Citadel’s water supply. We get the message.
Perhaps what the latest installment of the franchise says most is what’s happened to moviemaking in the last thirty years. Reaching a homogenized global market means that the narrative has been simplified, the Australian-ness of the franchise – voices and country, quirky outback characters and vernacular dialogue – are reduced to pips in the mix. If you’re going to make a $150 million blockbuster, you have to lower your sights and aim for the wallet. Spectacular action will always be seen as less risky than a complex character or a twisty plot.
I’m still looking forward to the next one, though.