MOVIE REVIEW: Mad Max: Fury Road



The often repeated and frequently modified idiom "one man's trash is another man's treasure" applies so well to the different attitudes, tastes, favorites, kinks, and quirks of our enormously varied movie-going audience, both here and abroad.  The idiom has use in every film genre, from tearjerker romances to blood curdling horror.  The niche of adamant lovers of a film are constantly matched by its fair share of haters with a measured middle ground in between that determines whether the final scale is balanced towards a majority like or dislike.  We could go all day and bring in more idioms that involve cups of tea, bandwagons, book cover judgment, or the use of fences as seating options.  Us movie critics, amateur or professional, can only try to project a movie's appeal to our fellow audience,  In the end, we are only one opinion of many and we too have our triggers, bias, and tendencies.  

For this writer, "Mad Max: Fury Road" is a daunting challenge for this website's definition of mindless action as a movie genre.  Mindless action has its range from the trash of Michael Bay to the treasure of the "Fast and Furious" franchise.  Across that range from top to bottom, action is first and plot is second.  That's perfectly fair and welcome.  Heck, that's the whole point.  However, what separates the trash from the treasure is quality and impact.  The quality speaks to the action and the impact speaks to the story being sewn along the way, even if it's secondary.  The really good mindless action movies (think "Die Hard") offer just enough heft of a compelling story to make the action matter and resonate beyond just superficial coolness.  As incredible in stunt work and thrills as "Mad Max: Fury Road" is, it is missing too much of that heft to matter beyond being really cool to watch.  Sorry, but even against a stellar 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, some of us need a little plot.

Aussie writer and director George Miller returns to the post-apocalyptic franchise he started over 35 years ago with 1979's "Mad Max."  This new film is somewhere between a deep sequel and a modern reboot back to the Wasteland.  Resident movie tough guy and man-of-few-words Tom Hardy takes over for Mel Gibson as Max Rockatansky, a former cop haunted by the loss of his family.  He wanders the desert with the simple goal of self-survival and carries no agenda or allegiance to anyone or anything but himself.

Cornered, Max is captured by the marauding War Boys of the local tyrant King Immortan Joe (played behind heavy makeup by Hugo Keays-Byrne, the same man who played the original "Toecutter" villain in 1979).  Farmed for his blood and chained up like a hood ornament, Max gets mixed up in a chase where one of Immortan Joe's leaders, Imperator Furiosa (Academy Award winner Charlize Theron), has gone rogue and escaped with a semi-truck rig of precious cargo, including life-sustaining breast milk, a large cache of fuel, and the breeding wives of Immortan Joe, lead by actress/model Rose Huntington-Whiteley.  Max escapes the shackles of War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult of "Jack the Giant Slayer" and "Warm Bodies") and he reluctantly joins Furiosa's path of escape and combat.

The headliner may be Tom Hardy, but the equally top-billed Charlize Theron steals every aspect of this movie's bad ass edge.  She is the steely one that makes you shiver in your boots.  She's the engaged one that pushes the action forward while Max is merely riding shotgun.  Theron's performance and character vaults towards the top of the all-time list of great female action heroes right up there with Linda Hamilton from the "Terminator" series and Sigourney Weaver from the "Alien" franchise.  She's that good and makes Scarlet Johansson's Black Widow look like a plucky cheerleader.  To all of the so-called men's activists that are protesting this film for its supposed feminist agenda, keep your tail between your legs and keep running away scared.  Go ahead and kick all of our asses, Charlize!  Get it, girl! 

The sheer action of "Mad Max: Fury Road" is utterly relentless, just as it should be.  Far away from his Oscar-winning efforts making the "Babe" and "Happy Feet" movies, George Miller is back pushing the envelope and being his most creative.  The is as appropriate and satisfying of a franchise return as Ridley Scott made with "Prometheus" three years ago.  Oscar-winning cinematographer John Seale, action unit coordinator Guy Norris, editor Margaret Sixel, production designer Colin Gibson, and composer Junkie XL unite to form the orchestra that Miller conducts to create this loud and wild symphony of mayhem.  The rumor is 90% of what you're watching is good, old-fashioned physical stunts, pushed by an occasionally higher frame rate, but undoctored by heavy CGI.  That effort is a maelstrom that is visually impressive and the creative gaudiness is off the charts in true "Mad Max" fashion.  Filmed predominantly in the African deserts of Namibia, the Wasteland, in all of its detail, vastness, and danger, sears the screen.

The action and the visual scope were not going to be this movie's problem.  We've known that since it's first Comic-Con footage nearly a year ago.  The narrative however, as a post-apocalyptic film, is nearly as odd, incoherent, and unexplained with any importance or investment as "Jupiter Ascending" was earlier this year as a science fiction space opera.  In both films, the expensive visuals were overflowing, yet lacking of resonance when matched with a story that couldn't make what you were watching matter behind its looks.  "Mad Max: Fury Road" talks of redemption and demons (see the lessons at the end), but doesn't deliver anything thick enough to sink your teeth into, akin to a good western that plays just as simple as a film like this.  "Mad Max: Fury Road" is much better than "Jupiter Ascending" for those looks, making sense, and unrivaled action quality.  In this website's opinion, it still doesn't have enough to reach the pantheon of great mindless action movies.  Maybe it takes a second viewing to soak more in, but, upon first impression, there's not enough.

LESSON #1: THE LIFEBLOOD RESOURCES OF SELF-SURVIVAL-- Every post-apocalyptic movie has a different "currency," so to speak, of which society is short of and people are fighting for.  In the "Mad Max" franchise, it's water and oil.  Those are the invaluable commodities that break down society and flip people's good-natured and shared dignity into selfish and violent animalistic instincts.  People rightfully have to fend for themselves and that get's ugly.  Occasionally in "Mad Max: Fury Road," hope and freedom emerge. not strongly but a little, as two more must-haves that into people's survival.  More on that in Lesson #2.

LESSON #2: WHEN YOU FIND SOMETHING TO FIGHT FOR OTHER THAN YOURSELF-- Furiosa is leading an effort against all odds to liberate her fellow women so that they may experience a decent life of their own freedom that she once had before being taken as a child by Immortan Joe's cult.  Max doesn't fall head-over-heels for that cause, but the former cop, husband, and father in him sees a plight that matters for a short period of time.  Their desire for independent survival matches his own.  That's good enough for Max to join the fight and see through to the end.

LESSON #3: THE THEMATIC CONNECTION BETWEEN REDEMPTION AND FREEDOM-- The genre motif of redemption plays most heavily as the motivator in "Mad Max: Fury Road."  With its single direction and threadbare plot, the film plays very much like a western in this regard.  Furiosa's escape to help others is her chance to correct her previous evils.  Max, in true anti-hero fashion, finds his sense of redemption in how this brief cause can help him make up for the loss in his own heart.  Because they occupy an oppressed world bent on virtual slavery, freedom is pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that grants the redemption these characters are seeking.