By this point, you’ve probably read a number of glowing reviews of Mad Max: Fury Road, perhaps even in this magazine. Adjectives as “ movie-making master class”, “thought provoking” and “of the uttermost brilliance” have been used to describe it.
This one is not that kind of review.
Let me put it this way. Yesterday, I saw a drama starring the septuagenarian Blythe Danner (Gwyneth Paltrow’s mom) called I’ll See You in My Dreams. Danner plays a widow tentatively dipping her toe in the dating pool (Sam Elliott is the most eligible suitor). I was 10 times more invested in that movie than I was ever in Mad Max: Fury Road.
Don’t get me wrong. The fourth Mad Max entry belongs in the top echelon of summer action blockbusters, but keep in mind the bar is very, very low. The most obvious comparison, Furious 7, was a ridiculous romp riding on the audience’s good will towards the franchise. Two muscle-heads driving straight into each other at 80 mph and barely getting a scratch is the definition of preposterousness (not to mention setting a horrible example.)
Mad Max: Fury Road succeeds in two aspects: World-building and stunts. Every character is fully formed and unique. While this post-apocalyptic society doesn’t withstand much analysis (why is the weakest character in the entire movie Immortan Joe’s second-in-command?), I can appreciate the meticulous dedication. There is an interesting idea at the heart of Joe’s water-based dictatorship: Once society has crumbled, there is no guarantee whatever comes next would be any better. As dystopias go, this one seems more likely than the overly engineered ones in films like The Hunger Games or Divergent.
Visually, Mad Max’ biggest triumph is the cinematography (somewhat undermined by ADD editing). The practical stunts are remarkable, but John Seale’s eye enhances every scene. The man knows how to shoot the desert: Seale won a Best Cinematography Oscar for The English Patient.
Since you can throw a rock and find a critic fawning over Mad Max: Fury Road achievements, I’ll focus on the problem areas.
Tom Hardy is a diluted version of Max Rockatansky. Mel Gibson is, by all accounts, an awful human being, but his Max at least gave the audience the illusion of danger. In the first two movies, Max did some awful things, justifiable only by lex talionis. The “anything goes” edge of Gibson’s Mad Max is all but gone in Tom Hardy’s version of the character. Not only does he seem well-adjusted next to everyone else, Hardy is a blank slate, borderline bland (PTSD is not enough to build up a personality). Hardy fails to make Mad Max his own, surprising, given how talented he is.
This is not a feminist movie. Much has been said about Charlize Theron being the true hero of Mad Max: Fury Road. Granted, she is terrific in it and is the one holding the movie together. Alas, if director George Miller were actually interested in genre reversal (let’s remember the level of misogyny in the first two movies of the saga), he wouldn’t have cast five impossibly gorgeous actresses (including three actual supermodels) as Immortan Joe’s brides, each one more skimpily dressed than the next. You can’t have it both ways.
The story is weak. Mad Max: Fury Road plot in a nutshell: Run from the bad guy. That’s it. Sure, the film is dressed up with five damsels in distress and a number of ghouls assisting Inmortan Joe in the pursuit, but there is not much more than that. It’s not like the movie is a character study either. George Miller barely takes a break to give the people on screen a motivation.
The characters have no inner life. No, random flashbacks of the girl Max couldn’t save don’t count, especially if they have little to no effect on the action. Only one character –Nicholas Hoult’s Nux- experiences something like an inner journey, and he’s not even the lead. One could argue Theron’s Furiosa is not the same person at the end, but all she does is adapt to changing circumstances. Max? Uh, he has no personality to start with.
The action gets repetitive. By the second confrontation between the heroes and the Immortan’s posse, my eyes were glazing over. While I feel nothing but respect over the decision of using practical effects over CGI, I grew tired of all the car climbing and jumping. There are only so many aerobatics you can perform in a chase movie and Miller repeats them at every instance. The last battle introduces a couple of fun elements to break with the monotony (a Cirque du Soleil act in the midst of the battle; a gas-spitting contest), but overall I can’t say it’s a thrill ride. A couple of shots longer than five seconds would have helped.
Next to The Road Warrior, Fury Road is less revolutionary than it seems. Beyond all the noise, Fury Road unfolds in very traditional fashion: The leads run away from their demons, have an epiphany and confront said demons. It’s the classic hero’s journey. At no point was I surprised. For all the carnage, there is very little gore on screen. It feels like Miller is holding back, like hoping for a PG-13 rating to please the studio that invested 150 million dollars in the movie (it didn’t happened, the MPAA gave it an R anyway).
By comparison, The Road Warrior is a nasty piece of counterculture: It opens with Max witnessing a heinous act of violence against an innocent and doing nothing about it (furthermore, it uses voyeurism to make the audience complicit), and concludes with the antihero ditching his misanthropic ways, if temporarily. There is a nifty, mean-spirited scene involving a boomerang and wax fingers that probably cost $10 dollars in props and it’s more memorable than anything in Fury Road. The Road Warrior does also a better job building stakes, courtesy of a feral child, a cattle dog and a comic relief, and succeeds at surprising the audience with a cleverly built, fully believable twist. It trusts the writing and it’s rewarded by it.
In short, Fury Road is not a bad movie, but let’s get real here: It’s not the second coming of Sam Peckinpah either. Nobody capable of exercising critical thinking could possibly give Mad Max: Fury Road full marks. Three prairie dogs burnt to a crisp.
Mad Max: Fury Road is now playing.