The first Mad Max film was a nasty little bit of exploitation that was banned in a couple of countries and got called “ugly and incoherent” by the New York Times. It cost less than $400,000 Australian dollars to make and grossed $100 million US dollars worldwide. Mad Max: Fury Road cost $150 million US dollars to make and will probably return many times that.
In hard numbers, this is proof of the adage that the make-or-break tentpole pictures that keep movie studios alive today really are the poverty row b-pictures of yesterday, pumped up and star-studded. I’m not sure yet what this says about popular culture or society, but I do know that it means our movie marquees for the next decade will be full of familiar titles from the creaking wire shelves of strip mall video rental stores back when teen spirit was a deodorant.
This is not to disparage the obvious skill that has gone into Mad Max: Fury Road. Director George Miller has proved himself to be far more than a grindhouse journeyman, though it’s still a wonder that the man behind four Mad Max films is the same one who made The Witches of Eastwick, Lorenzo’s Oil and Babe.
For the re-boot of the series, thirty years after Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Tom Hardy has taken over the role that made Mel Gibson famous in a story that could take place at any point on either side of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. Nailing down the chronology is pointless, however, as all that the audience needs to know is that the essential elements of a Mad Max film are all in place before the credits roll – Max, a hundred bad-ass vehicles, endless miles of road running through sun-baked desert and that post-apocalyptic Mad Max universe, where humanity is desperate and oil is scarce but eye-popping art direction is in plentiful supply.
We meet Max with an initial chase that gets him captured by the zombie-like “War Boys,” followed by another chase that introduces us to the Citadel ruled over by Immortan Joe, who controls the only source of water. A third chase scene has Max strapped to the front of one of the War Boys’ hot rods and when it ends Max has freed himself and thrown his lot in with Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and five supermodels.
Furiosa has rebelled against Immortan Joe, stealing away Joe’s wives – the scarce fertile females with whom Joe intends to make more War Boys. At this point the film has about as much plot as it needs to lurch forward again with – wait for it – another chase scene. Actually, the film is really just one big chase, punctuated by brief scenes where the characters tell each other just enough to move things forward; dialogue is scarce, exposition is telegraphed and motivations are stated bluntly. Anything more would get in the way of the spectacle and mayhem that Miller so lovingly creates.
And make no mistake, the spectacle is astounding. Anyone who thought the trailers looked good will find that Mad Max: Fury Road is that rare film that more than delivers on the promise of its previews. The film hurtles along while the soundtrack thunders and every apparently real-life (ie: non-digital) crash explodes off the screen. Compared to its prequels, Fury Road makes the bombastic Thunderdome seem stately while the first Mad Max looks contemplative and character-driven.
It’s rare for a director to get to make the same film four times, and with Fury Road’s cautiously upbeat ending, Miller will be doing it again with sequels stretching out as long as his films’ desert roads. He’s obviously having fun; the film is visually astonishing and remarkably lean for two hours stretched over so little story, with the action either slowed down or sped up to keep the pace on a martial timetable. It’s impressive and likely marks some new pinnacle of filmmaking craft, but I wish I could say that it left me feeling something more than exhausted but unmoved.
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