“Mad Max: Fury Road” opens Friday at Point, Palace, Star Cinema and Sundance. R, 2:00, four stars out of four.
I saw George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” at a 10 p.m. late screening, and, writing this at 2 a.m., I just can’t recommend it as a sleep aid.
I can recommend it every other way imaginable. Miller’s ferocious, grotesque, beautiful film is every bit the equal of its original trilogy from the ’80s, and throws down the gauntlet for every action film made since. You had CGI, $100 million budgets, all the tools at your disposal, “Mad Max” seems to ask all those other films — what were you doing with it, anyway?
1985’s “Beyond Thunderdome” ended on a note of hope, but hope is a foolish luxury in the world of “Fury Road,” apparently taking place just a few years later. The post-apocalyptic Outback, starved for blood, for water, for mercy, is ruled by a warlord named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), for whom his subjects are little more than raw materials. Young men become War Dogs, half-feral white-painted warriors who revere him as a god. Women become breeders, providing breast milk or offspring for Joe. Everyone else, starves in filth at the bottom of the Citadel, waiting for Joe to provide them a little water in exchange for their fealty.
As for Max (Tom Hardy taking over for Mel Gibson), he’s haunted by the people he’s failed to save over the years, and his blind grief makes him easy pickings for Joe’s men. They capture him and turn him into a “blood bag,” a living plasma storehouse in case one of the War Gods gets injured. So it happens that Mad Max, ostensibly the hero of his own film, is instead helplessly muzzled and strapped to the front of a War Dogs’ vehicle as sort of a spare tank during the film’s first bravura action scene.
That twist, putting the hero on the sidelines, hints at the surprises that Miller has lying in wait for us in “Fury Road.” For example, if there’s a true hero in this tale, it’s not Max but Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), one of Joe’s field generals. During that opening car chase, Furiosa goes rogue, and we learn that she’s squirreled away in her War Rig (an armored tanker truck with VW Beetle chassis welded on top as turrets) five of Joe’s “wives.” She plans to take them to safety, to a place she calls “The Green Place,” and when Max works his way free, he reluctantly agrees to help her.
When Joe realizes her treachery, he brings hellfire after her, and “Fury Road” is basically one big, extended car chase, from Point A to Point B. (There really is only the one road.) But what a car chase, as Miller unveils one automotive monstrosity after another, from dune buggies spiked like porcupines to a giant juggernaut festooned with amps on which War Drums beat kettle drums and a Steve Vai-like guitarist shreds away. (Yes, this is a car chase with its own house band.) Everywhere, there are grotesque little touches of craftsmanship, like the femur bone used as a gearshift or the skulls welded to the grille of the War Rig. It’s like a rolling Etsy store of death.
The unending cavalcade of new villains and new vehicles could have been overwhelming, but Miller shoots the car-to-car combat with a relentless discipline, orchestrating beautiful ballets of destruction that mix widescreen composition with Looney Tunes energy. We’re always aware of where every combatant is and what they’re doing, and Miller’s commitment to keeping things cohesive and coherent makes for some of the most sensational action scenes in recent history.
But just as important is that we care about those combatants, from the taciturn Max to the fierce Furiosa, to the five fugitive wives who evolve from victims to allies as they’re tested. And Nicholas Hoult is unexpectedly touching as a War Boy pulled along for the ride, and finds his fanatic loyalty to Joe sorely tested.
Miller has a lot more on his mind than mere spectacle, and underneath the carnage burns genuine anger at how men have run the world into the ground, and how perhaps only women can set things right. Perhaps the most shocking action scene of the film is when Max aims a rifle at an approaching bad guy, squints through the sight . . . and then hands the rifle to Furiosa, the better shot. (She even uses his shoulder to steady her aim.) It’s a sign of respect and equality between genders that is almost totally absent in the action genre, but is a major undercurrent here.
In the end, “Mad Max: Fury Road” is about the limits of running, and that eventually a world in pain has to turn around and correct itself. “If you don’t fix what’s broken, you go insane,” Max tells Furiosa at one point. I’m up in the middle of the night now because I’m so electrified by watching this movie. But because I’m thinking, too.