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Tom Hardy as Max in ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’
By Todd McCarthy
Thirty years after surviving Thunderdome, the reluctant warrior of modern movies’ first and most memorable post-apocalyptic action fantasy series is finally back and ready for more in Mad Max: Fury Road. George Miller has directed only five films in all that time, three of which starred pigs and penguins, but it can safely be said that this madly entertaining new action extravaganza energetically kicks more ass, as well as all other parts of the anatomy, than any film ever made by a 70-year-old — and does so far more skillfully than those turned out by most young turks half his age.
Although the earlier entries were made before the target audience for this one was even born (its new leading man was just a baby when the first one was released), Mad Max has lingered in the zeitgeist through the years, and a fair portion of the international public that has just wound down from Furious 7 will be happy to suck in the fumes from this equally action-packed and infinitely superior film.
One could plausibly observe that Fury Road is basically The Road Warrior on a new generation of steroids, and no doubt some critics will leave it at that; like the second and best film in the series, this one is mostly devoted to maniacal anarchic goons chasing Max and his small group of rebels across a scenically parched desert and leaving some of the most spectacularly destroyed vehicles ever seen in their dust. The new film certainly boasts a higher percentage of flat-out amazing action than any of its predecessors, and that’s probably enough said for most of its potential audience.
Perhaps the long gestation period served it well. While very similar to its predecessors in almost every way, the film has devilishness in its details: the tribal-style makeup, the endlessly inventive vehicles and armaments, the wild costumes and facial adornments, the startling apparition of a harem of stunning beauties in the middle of the desert, radiantly parched locations that resemble and yet go beyond the series’ previous wasteland evocations and a society equally lawless but more entrenched than those earlier seen (one that is, in fact, presided over by the same imposing actor who played the chief bad guy in the original Mad Max in 1979).
And then there’s the new leading actor, Tom Hardy, who’s so ideal a replacement for Mel Gibson that one wouldn’t want to imagine anyone else having taken over the role. Re-watching the initial two installments today, it’s striking to see how little Max Rockatansky (whose name is uttered just once, in the first film) actually does during long stretches of them, and so it is here; at the outset he’s captured by soldiers of the Citadel and detained in a rocky hell-hole where thousands of wailing captives do slave labor while awaiting small doses of precious water dispensed by their tyrannical leader from his looming cliff-side headquarters.
When the time comes to hit the road, Max, his face confined behind a trident-like mask, is strapped like a grille ornament on the front of a marauding car, a predicament he is not expected to survive. But emerge from it he does, of course, and slowly the man behind the victim emerges, first to exciting then to ultimately touching effect in the final scene. It’s as if Hardy was cast for his brawn but ultimately used for his soul.
Except for its mechanized details, the heavy chains, pulleys and steam-punk/heavy metal aspects of which lend a certain 19th century feel, the world on display here is straight out of dire early Biblical times. Presiding over the Citadel is the fearsome Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, the nasty Toecutter in Mad Max), who has grotesque offspring, sports flowing gray locks and wears a toothsome face-mask fed by large oxygen tubes. The slaves are covered in ashen white powder and live in a state of starvation and terror dispensed by violent punks known as War Boys.
The story cooked up by Miller and co-screenwriters Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris is no more complex than this: Entrusted by Immortan Joe with driving the large War Rig truck across the desert to an oil-producing outpost, tough ruling class babe Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, with close-cropped hair and raccoon eyes) instead diverts it across the desert with an illicit cargo — Immortan’s harem of breeding wives, who have memorable names such as Capable, Cheedo the Fragile and, best of all, Toast the Knowing. When first glimpsed, they look like a bunch of supermodels strewn across the desert for an exotic fashion shoot, although one of them, The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), is soon due to give birth.
The first two Max features ran barely 90 minutes and it takes guts and real confidence to dare push a straight chase film with very little dialogue to two hours. But Miller has pulled it off by coming up with innumerable new elements to keep the action compelling: The pitiless mindset of a brutish-minded society; bending poles sticking up from vehicles that allow marauders atop them to by lowered into enemy trucks for hand-to-hand combat; an insane heavy metal guitarist affixed to one of the Citadel’s rigs, whose raucous wailings and flame-throwing ability perfectly express this world’s extremity; and a central woman, missing one arm, who’s as tough-minded as any man but also retains a special link to a remote society of women she intends to find.
During the first extended, high-speed, jaw-dropping chase of Furiosa by the goon squad, which only ends when it’s engulfed by an enormous desert dust storm, Max remains frustrated by the chain linking him to his tormentors’ rig. But developing any trust with Furiosa takes considerably longer; she wants to kill him immediately and be done with it. They are, it would seem, potential soulmates, but the world they inhabit is not exactly conducive to developing trust, much less anything of a more amorous nature. Life is, in this world, not only cheap but almost assuredly very short.
If one wanted to map out a chronology of Max’s life and adventures, it would no longer make any sense in terms of the man’s age, nor does it matter at all. Miller recently absolved himself of any need to somehow explain the character’s newfound youthfulness by comparing him to James Bond; Max just goes on and on, with perennial access to rejuvenation via new actors.
The difference between this and Bond and many other such durable series is that it’s so palpably the product of one man’s imagination, a man who also possesses the skill, discipline and energy to put it all up on the screen so convincingly. Mad Max films are known for the moments when the cars’ super-chargers are engaged for surges of speed, and it’s clear that Miller’s personal super-chargers are in excellent working order. The colors are bold, the Namibia locations look like Arizona on steroids, virtually all the action looks real (thoughts of CGI only intrude with the massive dust clouds and certain personal and vehicular wipe-outs), cinematographer John Seale’s cameras are everywhere they need to be to record the action maximally, Junkie XL’s score hammers and soars. Second unit director and stunt coordinator Guy Norris clearly deserves major credit for delivering much of what’s most eye-popping onscreen and the film never sits still for more than a moment or two.
Miller originally spoke of filming a sequel called Furiosa back-to-back with this one, so presumably he has material more or less ready to go, and Hardy has claimed he’s signed for three more installments. In other words, the world may not have heard the last from Mad Max.
Watch an interview with the stars of ‘Mad Max’ below: