Highway to action heaven…
“My name is Max, my world is fire and blood,” rumbles Tom Hardy’s voiceover (think Bane attempting RP) across a fearsome desertscape of blinding yellows and combustible oranges. A lizard scuttles over a boulder, the tippy-tap-tap of its talons amplified to a death-metal snare-solo that forewarns of the cacophonous percussive score to come.
“It was hard to know who was more crazy,” rolls the vocal thunder. “Me, or everyone else.” In this thermonuclear world where water, oil and dialogue are at a premium, it’s like choosing between a shower with Norman Bates and supper with a tribe of Leatherfaces.
Decades in the making, Mad Max: Fury Road (or Mad Max 4 as it was titled before 9/11, Mel Gibson’s meltdown and freak weather clamped its progress) finally emerges as a plot-light, action-heavy chase movie bulging with mad-as-a-frog-in-a-sock stunt work. Which is to say, exactly how you want it. OK, so the hi-def, Instagram-filtered lensing, Hollywood names and CG enhancements to blockbuster-budgeted in-camera pile-ups are far removed from the 1979 guerrilla revenge movie that introduced Max Rockatansky to the world.
But then George Miller always wanted his carmageddon movies to bust out the Ozploitation ghetto and get right up in Hollywood’s grille: both sequels were distributed by Warner Bros, with The Road Warrior (1981) a landmark action movie, and Beyond Thunderdome (1985) watered down and camped up for mainstream consumption. Besides, this reboot retains all the brutality, antipodean humour and fertile imagination played out on arid vistas you could hope for. It is, in a word, crazy. In two, it's fucking crazy.
Captured by scavengers, Max (Tom Hardy, stepping into Gibbo’s S&M boots) is taken to the mountain lair of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter in the original), a gloriously nutzoid warlord with a white fright wig and horse-toothed muzzle.
Soon after Max’s arrival, Imperator Furiosa (a bulked-up Charlize Theron with buzz cut and bionic arm) sets out in nitro-fuelled tanker the War Rig to fetch supplies from Gas Town. Only she’s really making a break east to the Green Place with five of Immortan Joe’s best ‘breeders’ (among them Rosie Huntington-Whitely, Riley Keough and Zoe Kravitz).
Apoplectic, Immortan Joe sends his War Boys to hunt her down, these pallid, bald-headed crazies looking like an army of Nosferatu as they roar into the blistering desert in outlandish hot rods, all pipes and spikes. Among them is Nux (Nicholas Hoult), lips and sanity cracked, who screeches his desire to “die historic, on the Fury Road” as he straps Max to his grille like an oversized hood ornament.
Such is the extent of returning director George Miller’s finely tuned carnage, the few pockets of silence are most deafening of all. Sometimes it’s a God’s-eye view (or would be, if God existed in this blasted world) of moving dots trailing spumes of smoke, sometimes it’s the escaped Max and Furiosa learning to trust one another between battles: shreds of hope and redemption swirl in the dust.
Even then, dialogue is sparse, sentiment sparser still. Hardy’s Max feels less iconic than Gibson’s but fascinates as a wounded, feral animal; he has 20 lines throughout, and doesn’t need 18 of them. Theron is his match and more. The movie might have been called Mad Maxine and, in these days of prequels, sequels and spinoffs (there is already talk of two more films and a TV series), Furiosa is primed for action.
Action is, naturally, the operative word. Here it speaks louder than words, with character established through deeds – said deeds conducted while hanging off the sides of barrelling vehicles amid a tornado of guns, arrows, harpoons, buzz saws, chainsaws and exploding spears.
At one point the tornado is literal, a sandstorm soaring into the sky like a Lovecraftian beast. Inside its belly, automobiles spiral into the air as lightning pulses and bodies spin. It’s a remarkable set-piece but threatens to be topped later, in the mountains, as motorbikes hurdle the War Rig every which way, and later still, when another crazed collision of metal and flesh is made all the more demented by warriors pole-vaulting between vehicles.
Miller, who storyboarded 3,000 images and hewed his movie from 480 hours of footage, captures it all in a ballistic ballet of tracks, dollies and zooms. There’s beauty to the violence (which is oddly bloodless, hence that 15 certificate), just as there’s beauty to the desert plains and undulating dunes, the quagmires and salt lakes.
In the battle of the 2015 behemoths, the maxed-out madness of Mad Max: Fury Road sets an extraordinarily high bar – then pole-vaults clean over it and smashes the entire rig to smithereens.