Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy command the screen in this nitro-injected juggernaut of a film
Mad Max: Fury Road is the first film from George Miller since 2011’s dancing penguins cartoon Happy Feet Two, and his first live-action project since 1998’s Babe: Pig in the City. Two words spring to mind: "pent up".
Miller's long-delayed return to the Mad Max series, which has its European premiere at the Cannes Film Festival later this week, is nothing less than a Krakatoan eruption of craziness. The director last visited this world in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome in 1985, but this feels more like a spiritual sequel to The Road Warrior, the far superior 1981 instalment.
That film was a western from hell, in which Mel Gibson’s Max Rockatansky, scrabbling for survival in a future world blighted by drought and fuel shortages, helps defend a remote oil refinery from a band of marauders. Its climactic 20-minute chase scene – a still-perfect symphony of fireballs, barrel rolls and severed heads – plays like a gonzo rehash of the Native American pursuit that closes John Ford’s Stagecoach.
Fury Road goes even further: the film is almost nothing but chase, with each high-octane action sequence shunting into the next at breakneck speed. The result is less John Ford than Buster Keaton – specifically, the comedian's 1926 masterpiece The General, with its madcap there-and-back-again pursuit up and down 150 miles of railway track. With its spare dialogue and dazzlingly choreographed and edited stunts, Miller’s film often feels like a great silent movie – albeit a very loud one.
The film begins with Max, who’s now played by Tom Hardy, becoming mixed up in a jailbreak from a desert citadel. Its ruler, Immortan Joe (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, whom Mad Max fans may just about recognise, behind the make-up and skull mask, as the original film’s Toecutter), has five "wives" locked in a tower with whom he hopes to conceive, by force, a healthy son and heir.
Understandably, the wives aren’t keen, so they escape in the belly of a petrol tanker on a routine supply run. Enraged, Immortan leads the charge to bring them back. And that’s all there is to it. The first point at which Fury Road draws breath – an eerily beautiful wide shot of a flare spluttering out in the desert darkness – comes after half an hour of virtually continuous chaos. Most films aren’t built this way for all kinds of sensible reasons. But when they are, and it works – what a rush.
What compounds the fun is Fury Road’s wholesale rejection of the generally accepted blockbuster code of conduct, which dictates that expensive films have to be marketable to teenagers but still watchable by eight-year-olds in order to maximise box-office returns. Whether or not Miller was aware of these unspoken conventions, he has ploughed a blazing petrol tanker right through the middle of them. Fury Road takes a Rabelaisian delight in grotesque bodies, and the various ways in which they can be made to splatter, burn and pop.
Enormous, naked women are milked like cattle, dwarfs are hoisted on palanquins, and men as pale and gaunt as Méliès aliens are knocked out, gnawed on, sawn up and catapulted through explosions. Imagine if Cirque du Soleil reenacted a Hieronymus Bosch painting and someone set the theatre on fire. This is more or less what Miller has come up with.
But the film is transgressive in smarter, subtler ways too. Hardy is totally commanding on screen, and brings a certain camp detachment to the lead role, almost as if he had dragged up as himself to play it. There’s a connection between his work here and his performance as Charles Bronson for Nicolas Winding Refn, but he isn’t really the film’s leading man – and nor is Nicholas Hoult, who’s fabulously unhinged as Nux, a twitchy stowaway on the trip.
Fury Road’s alpha male is, in fact, a woman: the rogue soldier Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron, who masterminds the escape while Max rides shotgun. Furiosa is one of the toughest, most resilient action heroes in years, with a metal prosthetic arm that hints at past trauma and a steely gaze that sees more on the way. Like Sigourney Weaver's Ripley in the Alien films, the character is informed by her sex but not defined by it, and Theron superbly embodies her stoicism, nerve and resolve.
Few people, surely, were expecting robust feminism from the new Mad Max film – yet here we are, and Theron’s character is far from the only instance of it. See also Immortan’s escaping wives, who may be young and sylphlike, but are the opposite of damsels in distress, and play an instrumental part in their own dash for freedom.
One of them, called The Splendid Angharad, is played by the model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley – and while the part is of course glamorous, it’s also spiky and odd; long-overdue compensation for her excruciating non-role in Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon. (Other wives include Zoë Kravitz as Toast the Knowing: Miller and his co-writers deserve a special, gurning, bondage-gear-clad Oscar for coming up with these names.)
This is unusually progressive stuff, but it all stirs into the cocktail nicely – just as the painterly computer graphics, which provide the film’s backdrop of whirlwinds and dust-storms, marry surprisingly well with the predominantly practical stunt work. The world of Mad Max has always been welded together from bits of whatever was lying around, and the films’ brilliance has always been in their welding – the ingenious ways in which their scrap-metal parts were combined to create something unthinkable, hilarious or obscene, and often all three.