When the creator of a 1970s/1980s blockbuster franchise decides to dust it off again decades later, the results can be ... well, the results can be The Phantom Menace, Prometheus, or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: legacy-tarnishing messes that fans try to forget. And then there’s Mad Max: Fury Road. The first Mad Max film to be made by George Miller in 30 years, this belated reboot is missing its original star, Mel Gibson, and its director has spent the intervening years on such children’s fare as Happy Feet and Babe: Pig in the City. You might assume, then, that Fury Road would join The Phantom Menace on the scrapheap reserved for unloved revivals. And yet, somehow, this explosive new barrage of action and eccentricity isn’t only a faithful continuation of the series, it’s also its exhilarating high point. When Miller made his trilogy three decades ago, it seems, he was just revving up.
For the benefit of the uninitiated, the Mad Max films are set in a lawless post-apocalyptic dystopia where oil is scarce, and bands of scavengers career around in souped-up stock cars. Given that (a) this future world consists largely of sand, and (b) petrol is in short supply, it’s odd that the populace should be so devoted to the internal combustion engine, but Miller’s franchise was always absurd. It’s the gusto and flair with which it commits to that absurdity that makes it so exciting. Welcome to a land where everyone sports punk hairdos and leather bondage gear, and people are named Aunt Entity and Dr Dealgood as a matter of course.
In Fury Road, things are more extravagantly crazy than ever. The villain is Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), godlike ruler of a gnarled and ragged tribe. In his fortress, built into a cliff, he harvests organs from men in metal cages and drinks milk supplied by lactating women. He also has a harem of nubile captives (Rosie Huntingdon-Whitely and Zoë Kravitz among them) to bear his children. But one of his toughest lieutenants, Imperator Furiosa (a steely Charlize Theron), rebels against him by driving his “wives” away into the desert in an armoured lorry. Joe’s troops jump into their hot rods and set off in pursuit. Naturally, most of them are shirtless and painted white, and one of them is playing a flame-throwing guitar while he perches on the back of a truck. As this X-rated cross between The Wacky Races and a Marilyn Manson concert picks up speed, the only person who can keep the baddies at bay is the film’s reluctant hero, Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy).
It’s a shame that Mel Gibson couldn’t be persuaded to don his biker jacket once again. One of the fascinating aspects of the original Mad Max trilogy is how Max and his surroundings grow more barbaric with each instalment. In the first film, Gibson looks so fresh-faced and clean-cut that he could have stepped off the set of Neighbours, while the supposed wasteland he patrols is actually a leafy suburb. But over the course of the next two films, his milieu becomes more desolate and strange, while Max becomes a grizzled, anti-social nomad. I would have loved to see the same Max 30 years on, roaming the desert like a post-apocalyptic Moses, with a long white beard and a shotgun. Nonetheless, there’s no doubt that Hardy is twice the actor that Gibson ever was. True, he isn’t sure whether his accent should be Australian, American or English, but he makes Rockatansky a tortured, haunted outsider, with the wary savagery of a cornered animal, and just a few counterbalancing glimmers of Aussie blokeyness. Besides, it’s the first time that Max has seemed properly mad.
He’s still not the most complex of characters, mind you. Miller has never been too interested in fashioning rounded personalities, nor is he concerned with intricate plotting. Essentially, all that happens in Fury Road is that Max and co drive in one direction, and then they turn around and drive in the other. It’s this weakness in the script that stops the film being a classic, but that’s not to say it’s entirely brainless. There is some substance to go with its demolition-derby style. Immortan Joe’s minions (including a touchingly naive Nicholas Hoult) are presented as his besotted worshippers, keen to sacrifice themselves so that they can ascend to Valhalla. Joe himself is a bloated despot who keeps his followers in poverty, and sees women as his property. In other words, Fury Road isn’t just about oil and the environment, but about the struggle between feminism and religious fundamentalism – and that’s not bad going for a ridiculous car-case movie.
Still, it’s as a ridiculous car-chase movie that the film triumphs. Bursting with full-throttle stunts that hark back to Buster Keaton by way of Cirque du Soleil, and bristling with grotesque imagery which would be repulsive if it weren’t so imaginative, Fury Road is a defiantly individual riposte to those committee-led blockbusters which are built on CGI and designed to sell toys. Miller may incorporate some digital trickery here and there, but most of what he shows us was done for real, and every gymnastic feat looks punishingly difficult. I found myself remembering the moment in Avengers: Age of Ultron when Robert Downey Jr lifts his arm, and a robotic gauntlet flies over and assembles itself around his hand. It happens instantly, effortlessly, as if by magic – because, of course, it’s all done by computer. In contrast, poor Max spends half an hour with a metal muzzle on his face, and it takes him a lot of time and trouble to prise it off. It may be a small detail, but there’s something radical about the film’s adherence to grimy reality in the midst of feverish fantasy. And it seems even more radical now than it did 30 years ago. Miller has taken Mad Max to the max.
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