Mad Max: Fury Road leaves blisters on the cinema screen. This is the kind of action bonanza for which the term “pulse-pounding” was invented, except it doesn’t merely pound the pulse — it rattles the nerves, shocks the senses, dazzles the eyes, and stirs every film geek’s soul. As we enter yet another summer season marked with tepid sequels and soulless franchise films that appeal to the lowest common denominator, here at the outset is a brash, go-for-broke action master class, unapologetically audacious and dizzyingly original, that puts an exclamation point on the season before any other film can even begin to form a sentence.
But wait — isn’t this also a sequel of sorts? At this point, now four films in, isn’t Mad Max a sort-of franchise, and Fury Road its most recent summer tentpole installment… even if said installment arrives 30 years after the previous one? It’s ironic that the context of this film’s release would seem to perfectly fit the summer franchise mold — a loud, expensive, effects-laden opus tied to a famous film series — while the film itself basically spits all over the concept of a shallow blockbuster. Fury Road is brooding in its attitude and vibrant in its style, often verbally quiet while allowing its visual palette to convey key elements of narrative and theme. It is certainly not plotted on a needlessly complex, labyrinthine level, but it also refuses to slow its roll just to punctuate every sentence with exposition. There are no pit stops on Fury Road; it grinds its gears and blazes its guns in a non-stop quest to achieve an epic-scale filmic nirvana. General audiences may be repelled by its archness, but anyone who submits to the artistry and buckles in for the ride will be full and happy, yet still hungry for seconds… and likely thirds.
As a film that is required to loosely continue a chronology set forth several decades ago but also appeal to a substantial amount of newbie filmgoers, director George Miller’s task is a unique one — this film must function as a bridge that can connect the old school with the new. What might be perceived as a filmmaking challenge for some seems to fuel Miller’s already-inventive cinematic brain, for Mad Max: Fury Road defines itself early and often as an analog powerhouse living in the digital world. Nearly all of Miller’s visual quirks are achieved in-camera, and the majority of his effects are practical. What this means is all the gonzo spectacle is basically legit, rarely aided by the transparent CG tricks of the modern superhero epic, which firmly grounds the on-screen action even as this otherwise-unreal spectacle plays out like a balls-out hyper-symphony of sound and picture.
Tom Hardy assumes the title role from Mel Gibson; he is the perfect choice to portray a tortured hero like Max Rockatansky, though Fury Road‘s thirst for action tends to limit Hardy’s ability to dig into the character’s deep inner turmoil, aside from the occasional visual flourishes that jab us with fractured images of Max’s sense of guilt and loss. This time around, Max is more of a co-lead, sharing the screen with Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a chief henchman of the tyrannical Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) who opts to rebel against her oppressive leader, essentially jump-starting the 120-minute vehicular spectacle that ensues. The story is simple, but plays out on a grand scale — the “Wasteland” is ruled by the ruthless Joe, his plight carried out by a vicious army of white-faced, health-challenged “War Boys.” Furiosa rebels on an otherwise standard fuel run, and she carries with her the Five Wives, with whom Joe intends to repopulate the earth in his own image. When they stumble upon the road-weary Max, an uneasy alliance forms — maybe these disparate factions can work together to achieve the freedom that has eluded them in this post-apocalyptic Wasteland.
As is typical for Miller, the film is such a visual tour de force that elements of plot and character can get lost in the shuffle. But the film’s very humane beating heart never ceases. Some of the minor issues may well smooth out over the course of multiple viewings, which a film like Mad Max: Fury Road absolutely requires with its extraordinary display of film craft. Even in a presumably desolate setting, the film will likely go down as the most meticulously and gorgeously art directed film of 2015, each frame offering something inventive and new to saturate the visual plane. The costuming and makeup are also of the highest caliber. And it all plays out on a stunning cinematographic canvas, with John Seale’s lenses imbuing these images with a staggering blend of oranges and blues, and Miller’s complex storyboards somehow captured on film with startling specificity. Action is choreographed like a complex blunt-force ballet, each piece falling into place even as it feels the enterprise could collapse into hysteria at any moment. Miller controls this chaos as only he can — with a skewed perspective and wicked verve, somehow leading this visual insanity to an exhausted synthesis of action and artistry. When it’s all over, we are worn out but ready to dive back in.