*** This review contains minor spoilers ***
30 years and a fresh face later, the Mad Max series makes an extravagant and exhilarating return to theaters with Mad Max: Fury Road. Mel Gibson’s iconic wasteland warrior hero Max Rockatansky has been recast with the talented Tom Hardy, who gives us a more visceral and damaged portrayal of the character. Having endured years in the Hellish wasteland, Max now acts on his sole instinct of surviving. He's ravaged by the horrors of his past and has lost all semblance of hope in this bleak, post-apocalyptic future where water is scarce and mayhem is bountiful. Director and series creator George Miller does a masterful job in creating a remarkable and inventive world of chaos and destruction, with action sequences that are practically unparalleled. Mad Max: Fury Road is a movie that keeps its fat, irradiated foot firmly pressed on the gas pedal throughout almost its entire duration, resulting in a movie that's intense, action-packed, visually stunning, perfectly bizarre, wonderfully inventive, and wildly entertaining. It's only when the action slows down that the film starts to show signs of decay.
In Fury Road, we first encounter Max alone in the wasteland in what is about to be a very long and very bad day. He's quickly spotted and pursued by a pack of deathly-pale skinhead warriors known as Warboys. Outnumbered and easily captured, Max is taken to The Citadel, which serves as the home of the film's central conflict. The monstrously plagued Immortan Joe rules over The Citadel like a cult leader, promising eternal salvation to his army of Warboys who die fighting for him. The city is a place of great disparity, as Joe teases the peasants with water, while he enjoys the excesses of his precious resources. Even worse is that he's enslaved healthy, young women, known as his Five Wives, for the sake of producing his children.
This predicament doesn't sit well with the battle-hardened woman warrior Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) who serves under Immortan Joe's command. Tired of Joe's tyrannous ways, Imperator Furiosa betrays her leader during a routine gas run by venturing her armored war-rig offroad with the Five Wives secretly in tow. When news spreads that Furiosa is trying to escape and has taken the Wives with her, Joe and his army of Warboys feverishly follow in pursuit. This begins an epic, elaborate, and expertly crafted chase sequence that is absolutely outrageous and unmistakably brilliant.
Meanwhile, the enslaved Max ends up being inopportunely thrust into the action at full throttle, chained to the front of a car like a hood ornament. While Max's name may be in the title, make no mistake about it, this is Furiosa's story. Max is primarily just along for the ride, and doing whatever he can to survive. That's not to say that Max is simply an unfortunate onlooker to the events of the film, but he is given little in the way of dialogue and backstory, and is chained up for a substantial portion of Fury Road. Though it should be said that the movie as a whole is rather thin on story and dialogue and it merely glosses over the plot to retain its focus on the action, which is where the film really sets itself apart.
The majority of the Fury Road serves as this long, impressive chase sequence that miraculously continues to escalate as the film goes on, despite appearing to throw the whole kitchen sink at you right at the beginning. It's explosive, crazy, and jaw-droppingly awesome from the get-go, and yet believe me, it only gets bigger and better. Just wait until later when they start adding monster trucks, mini-guns, pole-vaulters, dirt bike-riding grannies, and a guitar flamethrower. It will leave you giddy with excitement. It's an amazing, heavy-metal, end-of-the-world spectacle that you just got to see to believe. What makes it all even more incredible is that so much of the action is achieved by practical effects, with real stunts and car crashes and explosions.
Unfortunately, in the rare moments when Fury Road lets its foot off the gas and slows down the action, it sometimes sputters. Take for instance, the film's climactic turning point when Furiosa's dreams are spoiled. She dramatically falls to her knees in the sand, reeling in despair, and screams out into the void. This pivotal moment should be the most powerful moment of the film, but for me it fell completely flat. The problem here is that I never felt a strong attachment to the characters. While I respect Furiosa and Max for their strength in this struggle, I also feel like I don't know much of anything about them, except that they're adept at surviving and have battled through Hell to get to this point. So while this brief interlude drags a bit, Max thankfully turns things back around and leads us right back into the heart of the action, where Fury Road is at its best.
Charlize Theron gives a commanding performance as Furiosa, easily establishing herself among the ranks of the great female action stars. She makes for an excellent partner to Tom Hardy's Max (though reportedly not so much on set). Hardy, on the other hand, puts in a solid performance, but I do take some issue with it. Truthfully, he just didn't quite feel like Mad Max. His take on the character is too rugged. He's missing the charm and likability that Mel Gibson's Max had. His character may be cool, but he's difficult to relate to, and feels remarkably reduced as he grunts throughout half of the movie without uttering a word. I can't help but feel that perhaps Hardy took Max's madness and survival instincts a little too far. The film also stars Nicholas Hoult as Nux, the Warboy that led Max into this whole mess, who expresses a much more appealing level of craziness. Whereas Nux is an energetic, lunatic cult follower, Max seems like he's just a few bolts short of becoming a mentally-deranged hobo, which might not bode so well for future films. Lastly, there's Immortan Joe, played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, who has an exceptional screen presence by being imposing, frightening, and so over-the-top that he's kind of funny.
Visually and artistically, Mad Max: Fury Road is a triumphant success. It's more gorgeous than you would ever think possible for a decrepit, wasteland warzone. Considerable skill and attention to detail are demonstrated to bring beauty out of this decaying environment. It features first-rate cinematography and unbelievable creativity. You'll wonder how anyone ever thought of this stuff, but you'll be grateful they did. The characters all look outstanding, unique, and memorable. I particularly loved Furiosa's appearance with her prosthetic arm and grease-smeared warpaint. More impressive still is the menacing Immortan Joe with his mask and elaborate body armor. Fury Road similarly has beautiful special effects which greatly enhance the atmosphere as well as the film's many remarkable stunts. In all, this is sure to be one of the best looking films of the year.
Mad Max: Fury Road may not be a perfect film, but it makes for an explosive and unforgettable return to the series. It's truly a creative tour-de-force, with ingenious action, stellar design, and stunning visuals. It features brilliantly choreographed fights and chases, and some of the coolest movie stunts I've ever seen. The movie doesn't always get the emotional punch it's aiming for, and it has its share of awkward moments, but it sure makes a lasting impression with its intense, adrenaline-pumping theatrics. It might be a little too strange and twisted for some (though it's relatively tame for being rated R), however, those who can handle the wasteland are sure to find a film that is deserving of respect and admiration. While I have my gripes with Hardy's portrayal of Max, I know that I, for one, still can't wait to see what the future holds for everybody's favorite road warrior.