It has been exactly 30 years since George Miller brought us the seemingly final entry in the “Mad Max” trilogy with “Beyond Thunderdome.” With action movies having evolved since then, the original movies, especially the first one, now look dated. Although stylish for the 80s, they lack much of the pizzazz modern day action movies possess. The newest installment, “Mad Max: Fury Road,” looks to reinvigorate the franchise with the same level of over-the-top excitement we see in cinemas today and it succeeds. Unfortunately, it retains most of the problems from the original films, as it focuses more on chases and explosions than it does story or character development. Like other movies of this ilk, “Mad Max: Fury Road” rings pretty hollow, but it’s fun while it lasts.
The story is simple, nigh inconsequential, as it exists solely as a means to lead to action. All you need to know is that Max (Tom Hardy) is on a cross-desert trek with Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who is helping female captives known as the Five Wives escape from a ruthless clan leader named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Pretty much everything before and after this part-way through set-up is narratively irrelevant. Sure, lots of things happen, but like the other “Mad Max” movies, nothing really happens.
At its best, though, “Fury Road” is a mesmerizing action movie, with enough impressive stunts to keep any filmgoer entertained. It begins and ends without doing or accomplishing much of anything besides mindless action, but that action is something to behold. Suicide leaps, fisticuffs atop moving vehicles, crumbling landscapes and more give the action an edge few other action films have. Even at the age of 70, director George Miller hasn’t lost a step. One could easily scoff at a man whose last three films were “Babe: Pig in the City” and both “Happy Feet” movies for trying to provide what many other directors have already seemingly perfected, but he has, in fact, surpassed those people, as he delivers some of the most impressive action put to screen in many years despite having not touched the genre in three decades.
Even better, “Mad Max: Fury Road” is an absolute beauty, one of the most gorgeously shot action movies I’ve ever seen, to the point where it should be given serious cinematography Oscar considerations. Couple that with terrific art direction and costume design, where the inhabitants of this post-apocalyptic world sport chapped lips and scarred skin due to an overbearing sun and lack of resources, and you have a film that is a sight to behold. Pure chaos and destruction has never been captured onscreen so beautifully.
If only such praise could be given to the other facets of its production. In a welcome surprise, Theron owns this movie and is even given the expected payoff at the end, but it nevertheless comes as a disappointment that Hardy is so underutilized. A terrific actor in his own right, he is given almost nothing to do except grunt and groan and stand broodingly. His scenes of dialogue are so few and far between that you start to wonder if poor Max somehow became a mute in the time period between this movie and its predecessors. While you can certainly develop a character without dialogue, the attempt here is poor and his lack of speech doesn’t do much to help. He is still emotionally suffering from the loss of his family (though they don’t contextualize it in any meaningful way for those who haven’t seen the first film), but instead of exploring it through character, they give him a few sudden flashbacks and hallucinations in a lame attempt to give his journey meaning.
The movie also suffers from the questionable decision to speed things up, a move done in the previous films to, one can assume, mask budget constraints. Here, it’s completely unnecessary. This world is so vividly realized and the action so stunningly choreographed that it comes as a disappointment that the film so often doesn’t give us enough time to truly appreciate it, as it instead cuts to the next explosion or gunshot. It doesn’t help either when the narrative can legitimately be compared to the frowned upon practice of backtracking in video games, as it gets them from point A to point B only to turn them around and send them back to point A again.
“Mad Max: Fury Road” is simultaneously a disappointment and an absolute blast. It’s hard to argue against its visual quality and exciting action, but it’s also easy to destroy its thinner than thin narrative and lack of substance. It’s one of those movies you’ll watch once in the theater and then never watch again, but during that one viewing, boy, is it something.
Mad Max: Fury Road receives 3/5