If production design and cutting-edge stunt work were enough
to make a great movie, Mad Max: Fury Road
would be the cinematic event of the year. But even this adrenaline-fueled
action yarn has characters in it, and they are so sketchily drawn that it keeps
the film from being a total success, in spite of its many attributes.
Aussie director George Miller has lost none of the big, outlandish
ideas that made the original Mad Max and Max Max 2 (aka Road Warrior) role models for anyone staging car-chase scenes in
the 1980s. They exuded a raw, kinetic urgency that few other filmmakers were
able to duplicate, and most of what we saw was real, as CGI was yet to be
Miller has returned to this post-apocalyptic world for his
latest epic and made a point of using CGI as sparingly as possible, so we can
see that some of the most hair-raising stunts are actually being performed by
humans, in a wild menagerie of imaginatively outfitted cars and trucks.
Action junkies will get their fill, as the two-hour film
rarely pauses to take a breath. But as I watched the first act, I found myself
wondering why I felt a certain distance from the mayhem onscreen. Then I
realized: I didn’t care about any of the characters.
Tom Hardy’s Mad Max is a cypher. We learn, early on, that he
is driven by the desperate need to survive, and that he harbors terrible guilt
about the people close to him that he was unable to protect. That’s all we know.
Hardy has admitted in interviews that he didn’t understand what Miller wanted
of him during the long, arduous production of Fury Road. It shows.
Charlize Theron, game as ever, bears a magnificent name
(Furiosa) and the responsibility for helping a handful of concubines escape
from the clutches of megalomaniacal ruler Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who
appeared in the first Mad Max movie
back in 1979). Theron gives a robust physical performance as a woman whose
steely determination and road smarts serve her well. It’s only toward the end
of the story that we learn what really motivates her.
The vast landscape against which the action unfolds fills
the giant screen; it would be criminal to see this for the first time on an
iPhone. The people responsible for production and vehicle design, makeup and
costuming, and the seamless interweaving of stunt work and CGI magic can be
proud of what they have accomplished. (I saw the film in 2-D and frankly, I was
glad; I can’t imagine how overpowering it will be in 3-D IMAX.)
By the final section of the film the pulse-pounding action
is almost unbearably exciting. I finally got involved as the story was winding
down and surrendered to the grip of Miller’s amazing achievement. Mad Max: Fury Road is a fanboy’s dream
come true, full of creepy, bizarre characters, even more bizarre road vehicles,
and propulsive energy. But I stop short of calling it a great movie because it
lacks heart and soul to match its abundant energy.