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The Sound And Fury Of Mad Max: Fury Road

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 developed.
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-Charlize Theron

Photo by Jasin Boland (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

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.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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