Greatness Evades Excitable "Mad Max: Fury Road"

“My name is Max. My world is fire and blood.”

It’s those ten words that open “Mad Max: Fury Road,” as if viewers might have already forgotten what they signed up for. It’s a manifesto as curt as it is literal, an unmistakable promise of mayhem that writer-director George Miller absolutely delivers on. In fact, Miller’s third “Mad Max” sequel – and his first in thirty years – is an exemplar of clarity of action and visual pomp, as if hand-drawn by the late Looney Tunes animator Tex Avery and lassoed into the real world.

But if Miller has finally perfected the kind of over caffeinated visual noise that’s plagued many a summer blockbuster, is that inherently good news? Jackhammers are more subtle instruments than the ones Miller employs here. His is a wildly monotonous film that operates at one volume – fortissimo – bludgeoning us over the head into either submission or exhaustion.

Tom Hardy (“The Dark Knight Rises”) takes on the title role that Mel Gibson originated, leading his director’s unrelenting charge of Buster Keaton by way of professional wrestling. World Wrestling Entertainment had no hand in making the film, but they might as well have. The costumes and characterizations and dialogue are all loud, loud, loud, a step beyond garish, appropriately crowned by a warrior perched atop a motorized rig of amplifiers, chugging out ear-splitting nu-metal licks on his flamethrower-guitar.

Inspired, sure. But also nightmarishly tacky.

In fairness, none of this is out of line for a series that’s dabbled in assless chaps, boomerangs as deadly weapons, and uniformly bad hair. But it’s an aesthetic that’s an especially strange bedfellow for the script’s swings toward political consciousness.

The skeletal plot sees Max kidnapped by crazed cult leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and driven through a post-apocalyptic desert wasteland as a literal hood ornament. With Max posited atop a rusted out hot rod as a makeshift blood donor for one of Joe’s warriors, Nux (a woefully over-the-top Nicholas Hoult), the caravan encounters warrior Furiosa (Charlize Theron) as she attempts to flee with a band of Joe’s imprisoned sex slaves.

Miller’s screenplay follows a reliable pattern of 20-minute chase scene, 10-minute breather, climaxing in a peerlessly berserk scrum between Furiosa’s crew – now with Max in tow – and Joe’s bloodthirsty henchmen.

Furiosa gets a semi-interesting backstory, bucking the damsel-in-distress subplot that’s regrettably become a staple of the genre, but 90% of the film is dedicated to movement. Combining speed-related visual tricks as old as the medium itself with pervasive post-production overdubs, “Fury Road” creates a monumental hyperreality for itself, one that can’t help but dwarf any story Miller might be trying to tell.

In some respects, it’s as one-note as movies get, with its literally circular path of action tailored to only the most devoted of action junkies. This is borne in the film’s preposterous misuse of Tom Hardy, one of the finest acting talents of his generation. He’s consigned to a face mask for the first half of the film, only to mumble and grunt his way through the rest of it. Having the ever-enjoyable Theron as a de facto lead is nice, but Hardy deserves much better in the way of range of material.

Much like Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity,” “Fury Road” is an impressive technical achievement without much of a narrative leg to stand on, the kind of frantic, whirligig amusement park ride that so many directors get wrong. And because Miller does the action part so well, he’s ensured years of copycats destined to – surprise! – keep getting it wrong.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” will be some viewers’ cup of tea, but be forewarned – it’s served scalding hot and in the gaudiest of mugs.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: May 15, 2015
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: George Miller
Screenwriter: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nico Lathouris
Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoe Kravitz
MPAA Rating: R (for intense sequences of violence throughout, and for disturbing images)