Diary of a Madman

The visceral, unexpected brilliance of Mad Max: Fury Road

Warner Bros. Pictures

Let it roll over you like heavy surf, like encroaching thunder. Let it roll over you like the wheels of an armor-plated tanker truck full of women fleeing sexual slavery. Because that’s what Mad Max: Fury Road is built to do.

It’s been 30 years since director George Miller (or anyone else) made a Mad Max movie, and it was easy to view this new sequel/reboot/whatever with a certain amount of drilling-an-old-well skepticism. But skepticism burns away like vapor in the heat of the blazing, arid dystopia Miller has created. Fury Road is an A-plus B-movie, an action flick so vivid and visceral, so striking in conception and extraordinary in execution, that it comes almost as a revelation.

Max Rockatansky—played by Mel Gibson in the original trilogy and by Tom Hardy here—is mad. He’s mad that the world collapsed, that thermonuclear conflict led to a bitter Darwinian struggle for scraps and water amid the post-apocalyptic landscape. (The very first scene of the movie finds him stomping a gecko flat, then eating it.) But mostly he’s mad because he was unable to save his wife and daughter from death at the hands of roving marauders. (Also, his dog, way back when, although that goes unmentioned in this telling.)

Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is—you guessed it—furious. An important lieutenant in the army of brutal warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), she is nonetheless furious that she was long ago plucked from her home to serve. But she’s more furious still at Joe’s enslavement of his “breeders,” fertile women treated as sexual chattel to bear his babies.

So Furiosa steals a heavy “war rig” with five such women stowed aboard, and begins her trek across a seemingly endless desert. When Immortan Joe assembles his own vehicular posse to hunt her down, Max, a captive, is brought along as a hood ornament and human “blood bag”—that is, an as-needed intravenous plasma transfusion for Joe’s ghostly “War Boys.” Max escapes, joins Furiosa on her odyssey toward a better future ... And that’s pretty much the movie.

Fury Road is a remarkably lean film, uncluttered by the discursive backstories, subplots, and hand-wringing moral quandaries that bring so many contemporary action movies to a grinding halt. Dialogue is scant, and exposition all but non-existent. There are good guys (most of them technically gals) and bad guys (pretty much all of them physically repellent in one manner or another). The bad guys chase the good guys, occasionally catching up with them in time to initiate a set piece of delirious automotive destruction. It’s a plot almost as linear as Max and Furiosa’s journey across the sands.

If the narrative is simple, however, the costume and production design are magnificently baroque: the retro-futurist vehicles, emblazoned with skulls and tricked-out with spikes or tank treads or cannons. The toothy, death-mask respirator worn by Immortan Joe (partly so we don’t recognize Keays-Byrne as the same actor who played Toecutter in the original Mad Max). The mascara’d, shave-pated War Boys, huffing chrome spray paint with glee. The creepy stilt-folk who wander silently through a fetid swamp. There are cars that bristle like hedgehogs and bandits who resemble Tusken Raiders, dive-bombing motorcyclists and chainsaw-wielding attackers who swoop down, Cirque de Soleil-like, on the tips of flexible poles. The techno-primitivism is all of a piece: This is a world made up entirely of gears and chains and internal combustion engines.

Of course a war party as rock-operatic as Immortan Joe’s needs its own soundtrack, and “Ride of the Valkyries” is not going to cut it here. Enter the Doof Wagon, a monstrous heavy-metal amplifier on wheels—horns, speakers, kettledrums worthy of the Blue Man Group—and its frontman, the Coma-Doof Warrior, who hangs from strings like a marionette, wielding a two-headed guitar-cum-flamethrower. (Sign me up for the Coma-Doof spinoff.)

This all no doubt sounds tremendously silly, but Miller deploys his playthings with such visual virtuosity and outright ferocity that Fury Road never plays like a joke, inside or otherwise. The picture was shot by the Oscar-winning cinematographer John Seale (The English Patient), who came out of retirement for the project, and his eye for quality shows. The action sequences are mesmerizingly choreographed and feature blessedly little overt CGI. (This is the rare movie that is genuinely worth seeing in 3D.) The reliance on stunts and practical effects helps contribute to Fury Road’s throwback-y appeal: At times the movie feels almost like a tone poem to early-’80s excess, a cross between a monster-truck rally and a Plasmatics concert.

Neither Hardy nor Theron (nor anyone else in the film) delivers a particularly strong performance. But they look their parts, and that’s ultimately more important. This is not what anyone would plausibly describe as an actor’s film. (For that, try Tom Hardy’s opposite-end-of-the-spectrum vehicular foray, last year’s understatedly tremendous Locke.) There are also a few missteps along the way—Max’s visions of his dead daughter are a rare unnecessary flourish—and 20 minutes might have been usefully shaved from the two-hour running time.

But Mad Max: Fury Road is that rarest of indulgences, a blockbuster-season release that fully delivers on its promise. This is vital action filmmaking, a wash of sensation almost primal in its intensity and utterly devoid of the mopey self-seriousness that is so much in vogue these days. May you stay mad forever, Max.