Moviemaking, you may have noticed, has become a franchise factory, a mill that churns out business plans and Marvel-verse flow charts and is powered by predictability. It's kind of an IBM of moving images. Much is manufactured. Little is created.
Once upon a time, audiences scoffed at the sequel, the remake and the reboot. They were looked down on as lazy ways for studios to maximize profits. Today they're the basis of an industry bigger and more globalized than anyone could have imagined a decade ago. If any art is alive and well in Hollywood, it's the art of lowered expectations.
That's my grumpy-old-guy way of saying that the last thing anybody had reason to expect, upon hearing that George Miller was making a new Mad Max movie, was that it wouldn't blow. After all, the director is 70. It's been 30 years since Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Postapocalyptic thrillers have not exactly been in short supply. And, you know, Mel Gibson.
But, against all the odds, all the trends, all the advances in technology (most of the action here is real, not CGI), the director has accomplished the all-but-unthinkable. He's made a mindblowingly, maniacally wonderful film. Fury Road is not merely the best Mad Max picture. It's very probably the best action picture of the year. Possibly the decade.
Those who know the trilogy will find everything about this reboot at once familiar and subtly, surprisingly new. Sure, Max is there, now in the form of that marvelous shape shifter Tom Hardy. And sure, the Earth has been scorched, scant resources are fought over by rival tribes and each possesses a zanier fashion sense than the last.
But there is also a woman. Her name is Furiosa (Charlize Theron). Her head is shaved, one of her arms is a mechanical attachment and, as gradually becomes clear, she is the movie's principal character. Max is, quite literally, just along for the ride.
The entire picture consists of the brilliantly choreographed chase that ensues after Furiosa steals one of her tyrannical leader's (Hugh Keays-Byrne) tankers — along with five of his beautiful young "breeders" — and makes a desperate dash across the desert for the "green place" where she was born. Max just happens to be fleeing the same bloodthirsty bunch. The two form an initially wary alliance.
I don't want to spoil a psychedelic second of the fun (spring for the 3D; it's worth it). So all I'll say is that the mayhem is so imaginatively staged (Cirque du Soleil acrobats perform stunt work), so visionary down to its minutest detail and so pulse-poundingly propulsive that it makes the Fast & Furious series look like a soapbox derby.
Good for Miller. It's a thrill to see a filmmaker confound expectations the way he does with a work as inventive and assured as Fury Road. One of the many things viewers are likely to find surprising is the vein of tenderness coursing through it. This is a movie made by an older, wiser artist. Oh, and one who's become something of a feminist.
The relationship between Max and Furiosa is a thing of beauty, and occupies a category all its own in the history of cinematic pairings. The dialogue is as sparse as water or greenery in Miller's ravaged wasteland — but, though we're never told, we understand that Hardy's Max isn't so much mad as hurting. So is Theron's character, and each offers the other something that will always be too scarce in this world — compassion.
This is not your father's Mad Max.