Till now, movies have simply been going through the motions — frame, shot, action, cut, edits, whatever. All movies have been exposed as the milquetoast hackwork they are by the movie literally to end all movies, “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Cineplexes have yet to pull other films to make way for “Fury Road,” but we should consider it only a matter of time. All the rest of the movies have just been made. Hollywood can close up shop. There is nothing but parched orange desert stretching off into the future. The culture has been decided, and “Fury Road” has won it by knockout during two hours of how-did-anyone-survive-this stuntwork.
The particulars of this exercise — in essence, a feature-length car chase set in the nearest thing the location scout could find to actual hell — should surprise you only if you’ve somehow missed the trailers for this blitz. Every vehicle in this post-nuclear apocalyptic wasteland is a mashup of seemingly two or three former cars or trucks or motorcycles, as conceived by the criminally insane guy at the back of your civics class carving hot rods into his desk with a switchblade.
George Miller — who directed the previous three “Mad Max” movies and, more recently, um, “Babe: Pig in the City” — insists that the nightmare machines in his movies need to be functional, which is why the disfigured dude in the red onsie suspended in front of a mobile mountain of speakers is playing double metal flamethrower guitar that really does work.
The sheer quantity of machines is dizzying. Max (Tom Hardy, grunting as high art) explains early on that his world is only fire and blood. More to the point, it’s about munitions and fuel. He gets kidnapped from his lonely desert driving rounds and dragged back to a mountain fortress called the Citadel, ruled by a bleached-out tyrant named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, a holdover from the first “Mad Max”) and staffed by a gaggle of goons who favor a Día de Los Muertos aesthetic: blackened eyes around skull-white skin and shaved heads. He’s being used as a human bloodbag when a lieutenant, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), kicks the action into gear by diverting a fuel run to points unknown with Immortan Joe’s several young wives stowed away. This sets off an epic womanhunt across the desert (shot in Australia and Namibia) that’s later joined by generals from nearby settlements bearing names like the Bullet Farmer and the People Eater.
Other than that, there’s not just a whole lot of back story to explain. Civilization has collapsed and now everyone is really, really thirsty.
The original “Mad Max” cost director George Miller something like a third of a million bucks to make, and raked in $100 million worldwide in return, the greatest return on a movie for the 20 years afterward. This is the fourth installment, offered up after a 30-year wait, long enough for the originals to have cooled sufficiently. You could call this a reboot if you were so inclined. More accurately it’s a jackboot to the teeth. The presentation skews operatic in its scale and dark grandeur, all explosions and attacks and sprays of rust-colored dust and chrome paint sprayed in faces like aerosol cocaine in a can. It lets you stop to take a breath only so there’s something in your lungs to expel when it punches you again a moment later.
To offer a plausible critique to this spectacle: It offers only slightly more character development than your average Cirque du Soleil show. Max offers less of himself, has fewer full-sentence lines, than any title character in recent memory. Furiosa gives us a bit more; she has motivation, and is fighting against Immortan Joe as much as she’s fighting for her life and those of the other women. Men have complained, in predictable-idiot fashion, that Miller has smuggled a feminism infomercial into your popcorn flick, supposedly because there are more than two useful women characters in this, a movie about such traditional dude domains as cars and trucks and motorcycles and fantastic jerry-rigged tanks and high-powered scope rifles and detonating fuel tanks and whatnot.
Their insecurities, transparent though they may be, are grounded in a true fact. If this is what an action movie looks like when it puts women at the fore, the Furiosas of the world should be leading these franchises from here until the dust-stormy horizon.