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’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.