It’s no surprise that “Mad Max: Fury Road” is as wild as any movie we’re likely to see in the summer action tsunami. Seventy-year-old Australian director George Miller has said he wanted it to be a two-hour chase and what we wound up with is not too far off. Out of its 120 minutes, 90 of them, at least, take place in motion – when the movie’s foul, grotesque and truly monstrous monster trucks, hot rods and war machines that look like porcupines are whizzing through vast deserts at 70 mph.
In the arch and self-important vocabulary of filmspeak, this is an authentic film “vision.” It was a couple of decades ago that film hacks the world over added that word of praise to their everyday vocabulary to impress the rest of us civilians (“It’s Adam Sandler’s vision that … ”) See also the word “journey” meaning “story,” “reveal” used as a noun and “on set” without the definite article “the” in the middle to indicate the racy, abbreviated lingo of movie pros.
“Mad Max: Fury Road” is an honest-to-God film vision. It may be the only one we see all summer – or at least one of a handful, at most. It’s the fourth in a series that began with “Mad Max” in 1979, went on to “The Road Warrior” and, still my favorite, “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome,” in which Tina Turner galvanized the movie with a larger-than-life presence even grander than Mel Gibson’s. Her ear-slicing announcement “Welcome to Thunderdome!” is still in my head after 30 years.
And now for today’s heresy: I like Tom Hardy as Max more than Gibson in the originals.
It was part of Miller’s “vision” when he created these “Mad Max” nightmares, that his startlingly handsome hero would be the center of a movie where everything else was violently ugly – the cars, the clothes, the people, the things they did to each other.
Gibson was the epitome of movie star handsome. He had a face that could make young women swoon – even if Miller smudged it up with grime.
Hardy’s is not a face made for stage door swoons. He’s a bloke, Russell Crowe division. He’s also an extraordinary actor capable of carrying a movie by himself. For the first quarter of “Fury Road,” he’s not even that. He’s got an ugly metal muzzle smashed over his mouth and nose.
He also spends that time as a bound-up hood ornament for one of the movie’s insectlike roadsters. He’s also used as a blood bank by the bad guys because his O-positive blood makes him a universal donor.
That is typical of Miller’s medical touch in creating this post-apocalyptic world of scarcity, where oil and water are precious commodities and are parceled out by society’s worst and most violent people (most of whom are as ugly as the figures in a Bosch painting – horribly corpulent, shaven-headed and sallow-eyed, leprous, whatever.)
In creating a world of oppressive ugliness everywhere, Miller was calling on his training. He was a film world rarity: a trained physician. He practiced through his residency before he turned to film full time. His film “Lorenzo’s Oil” with Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon is one of the most powerful and graphically knowledgeable medical movies ever made.
In “Mad Max: Fury Road,” Max tells us in Hardy’s growling voice that “mankind has gone rogue destroying itself. It was hard to know who was crazy, me or everybody else.”
You can eliminate the “or.” Both describe the situation nicely as we watch the movie.
Max, whose family died in the world of deprivation ruled by a Hobbesian war of all against all, is one of two people in this world with the capacity to lead others back into behavioral decency and even landscape greenery to compete with the magnificent desert vistas of the rest of the film. (It was filmed in Namibia, with visually exceptional consequence.)
The other leader is Furiosa, an “Imperator” played by Charlize Theron with no makeup and a CGI amputated left arm.
This war-stricken place where life is so cheap isn’t just a sci-fi dystopia. It’s a kind of full-blown hell, where everyone fights for survival.
Furiosa has led an escape from the tyrannical kingdom of King Immortan Joe and his War Boys with some of the King’s beautiful wives – a couple of whom are pregnant. (Miller medical time again.)
Furiosa tells the fleeing wives – called “Queens” – about a “greenplace” where people live with peace and water.
Needless to say, this dream is under attack for the film’s two hours, most of which were filmed in automotive motion by vehicles where human beings are used as hood ornaments and cow-catchers. (Some, like Max at first, are in chains; some play heavy metal guitar in front of the grille.)
It’s Hardy, Theron and their friends against the ugliest and most grotesque bad guys likely to be seen all summer.
Characters in Miller’s vision have names like Queen Toast the Knowing, the People Eater, the Bullet Farmer and Prince Rictus Erectus. In a world of deprivation and desperation, you eat your protein wherever you can find it. Before the film is over, we’ve seen people chow down on a live lizard and a crawling spider.
It is the modern style of summer action movie to give us constant motion and violence at ear-splitting volume. What is rare to the point of singularity in a Miller “Mad Max” vision is that any punishment afflicted on the audience is not inadvertent.
Miller conjured up this vile but exciting and wild world as a nightmare of what humankind was creating for itself in its certain future lapses into oil and water shortages.
In a larger sense, any audience that might feel punished as well as crazily entertained by “Mad Max: Fury Road” knows that it may deserve it.
The Mad Max movies are monster movies where we intemperate consumers in the audience are, in a way, the monsters.
The movie is as amazing, in its way, as we all knew it was going to be.
“Mad Max: Fury Road”
∆∆∆ø (Out of four)
Starring Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron and Zoe Kravitz. 120 minutes. Rated R for intense sequences of violence throughout and for disturbing images.