AFTER 30 years away from the big screen, Max Rockatansky still doesn’t say much. But when he does open his mouth it’s pretty flavorsome. “My world is fire and blood,” he rasps at the outset of this extraordinarily adrenalized, thrill-a-second, helter skelter of a return. Later he’ll warn, “If you can’t fix what’s broken, you’ll go mad.”
He would know, having lost family, friends and dependents along with what passes for sanity in George Miller’s post-apocalyptic world. At the same time, Max’s assertion brings to mind a more common maxim, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” which applies to the film itself. With the long-awaited fourth in his series, Miller remains faithful to its famously revved and warped template. And it still works a treat.
The basic ingredients are present and correct: an endless desert road, an armada of super-charged, fire-spouting, gun-toting custom cars manned by freaks and psychopaths, relentless chase sequences and Max, the former cop turned deranged desert survivor. This familiar formula has been brought up to date with even more visceral action, state-of-the- art production values, a new Max – Tom Hardy taking on the mantle from Mel Gibson – and a female character every bit as kick-ass and potentially iconic as the eponymous hero.
As usual, it starts with Max on the back foot. Alone in the desert, haunted by his losses and in need of a serious haircut, the laconic loner is captured and taken to the Citadel. This is a godforsaken place, borrowed from Hieronymus Bosch and lorded over by Immortan Joe, a monstrous man in a mask, breathing assisted but with an iron hold over his drought-afflicted flock, who he keeps in line with the occasional offering of water and an army of bald, war-painted War Boys.
This is where Max comes in, joining the rare, healthy humans used as blood banks for the troops. He would remain here, trussed up until bled dry, were it not for Furiosa (Charlize Theron), driver of Joe’s War Rig, who goes AWOL with her boss’s five wives, who’ve had enough of life as glorified breeders in his harem. When Joe gives chase, Max is strapped to the front of a War Boy’s car – drip-feeding Nux (Nicholas Hoult) as they speed through the desert.
Miller is as synonymous with Mad Max as another George, Lucas, is with Star Wars. Unlike Lucas, he’s never been concerned with fleshing out his world thematically; his films are purely about action. Thankfully, the thrills are delivered with enough ingenuity and energy to hold our attention (I love the pursuit car that comes complete with its own heavy metal guitarist) and just enough humanity invested in the characters to make us care.
With little dialogue and motivation, Max is a tough role for an actor; it requires sheer presence. Gibson had it in spades, so does Hardy, to the degree that his best work here may even be for the half hour when Max is muzzled by his captors; his silent, urgent emoting is gripping.
Theron is even better, as combat-ready as Hardy, while giving a nuanced portrait of a victim of this brutal world still clinging to hope. Young Hoult has fun as the dumbly glory-seeking disciple who spies a better deal amongst the feisty damsels he’s been chasing.
If Mad Mad 2 was a spaghetti western, Fury Road is Stagecoach, with the War Rig fleeing the hostile natives across the desert. Once again, in Miller’s hands what could be dismissed as a hyper-violent, cartoon-like action film offers something a little bit special.
This review first appeared in The Sunday Herald