The ghostly War Boys of “Mad Max: Fury Road” have a catchy mantra they recite as they go into battle. “I live. I die. I live again!” In some ways it could be the refrain for the series. Begun as a down-and-dirty punk rock vision of a post-apocalyptic Australia, the 1979 no-budget movie made a star out of Mel Gibson and spawned a mini-franchise of two more films, “The Road Warrior” and “Beyond Thunderdome.”
The George Miller films lived, died and now live again courtesy of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” an out-of-control reboot that recreates Max Rockatansky’s dystopian world and then races like hell through it, laying rubber all the way.
Set in an arid, inhospitable world where a snack of raw lizard constitutes a meal, Max (Tom Hardy) is a man who has lost everything, Haunted by “those he could not protect” he is now “a man reduced to a single instinct—survival.” Captured by henchmen of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter in the original “Mad Max”), a despot who hoards precious natural resources and only sparingly shares water with his subjects—Don’t take too much water, he says, you will only come to resent it when it isn’t there.—Max is turned into a blood bank for an ailing war boy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Subjected to a life of confinement and drained of his own natural resources, Max sees a chance for freedom when Nux and others do battle against Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a former warrior turned rogue. She’s driving the imposing War Rig—imagine a Monster Truck with an attitude—across the wasteland. With her are Immortan Joe’s five wives—Splendid (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), Capable (Riley Keough), Toast (Zoë Kravitz), The Dag (Abbey Lee Kershaw) and Fragile (Courtney Eaton)—a natural resource he desperately wants back. Max and Furiosa form an uncomfortable alliance to battle the forces of evil and make it across the desert to Furiosa’s childhood home, a green oasis.
It’s been thirty years since there was a new “Mad Max” movie but “Fury Road” was worth the wait. The years have not stilled Miller’s restless camera or his outrageous way with steampunk influenced design or character names. If Imperator Furiosa isn’t the best character name of the year, I don’t know what is. Her title, however, might as well have been Mad Maxine as she is more the focus of the story than the titular character.
It is a chase movie where characters chase immortality, a new life in a better place, love and one another across a vivid landscape. Gone are the grey tones of dystopian movies like “The Road.” In its place is a dusty but vibrant backdrop that frames the non-stop action. Miller keeps the pedal to the metal but unlike the recent “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” which had a similar angle of attack, he keeps the action earthbound. The laws of physics are respected—when a car blows up it doesn’t rocket into space for instance—by the director’s use of practical effects. Most everything you see on screen are actual stunts performed by real people and not generated by a clever computer operator in a studio later on. The organic nature of most of (but not quite all) the visuals gives the movie extra torque, adding a sense of danger and realism (no matter how unreal the situation) to the large set pieces that make up the bulk of the film.
Hardy pulls his weight as Max. His powerful physicality mixed with a haunted look—maybe we should call him Passive Aggressive Max—and gearbox permanently shifted to survival makes him an imposing center of the film, but it is Theron who dominates.
As Furiosa she lives up to her name as a force to be reckoned with. She’s a one-armed bandit (literally) who not only provides much of the action in the film, but its heart as well.
The real star, however, is Miller. Thirty years after he last played in Mad Max’s world he revisits it with a film that doesn’t feel like a sequel or a reboot, but a fresh look at an familiar character. His off-the-wall sensibility and demented Hot Wheels style designs give the movie a look and feel that no other director could replicate.