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Mad Max: Fury Road

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

3 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: George Miller

Cast: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Josh Helman, Nathan Jones, Zoë Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton, John Howard, Richard Carter, Iota, Angus Sampson, Jennifer Hagan, Megan Gale, Melissa Jaffer

MPAA Rating: R (for intense sequences of violence throughout, and for disturbing images)

Running Time: 2:00

Release Date: 5/15/15


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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 13, 2015

It would be a mistake to say that the plot of Mad Max: Fury Road is skeletal. The screenplay by director George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nick Lathouris scrapes away the distracting tissue of a barebones plot until we are left with just the marrow.

In terms of story, this is a chase film and nothing more. One party is on the run, and up to three other groups are in pursuit. This description is not an insult. At a time when so many modern action movies overwhelm us with exposition and unnecessary specifics, here is a lesson in economical storytelling that defiantly takes the stance that less is more. This, of course, leaves plenty of room for Miller to give us more where it counts. In this case, though, it's not just more but more, more, more, more, and, in case the other instances didn't stick, more.

Here's an action spectacle in which the action is genuinely spectacular—a robust combination of practical stunt work and digital effects in which it becomes impossible to make a distinction between the two. We assume the moments in which lives are in danger have been digitally manipulated or crafted, but then there's the scene in which one man is lying on the front of a souped-up muscle car in order to pour gasoline directly into the engine while another man is lying on the hood of semi-truck to do the same thing—albeit while spitting fuel into the engine.

Miller's camera gets in close, of course, but it also hangs back in other shots so that we can see the vehicles, the men atop them, and the road speeding underneath this procession of dueling gas-guzzling-and-spewing. This isn't a visual effect. These are clearly two men lying on top of speeding vehicles, risking a lot for a scene that is not only inventive in terms of what is happening but also thrilling and funny in those same terms. Miller and his crew didn't have to put two men in this situation. They did, though, and it pays off in ways that only begin with the logistics of the stunt.

This is just one moment in one extended sequence in the midst of a chase that is, more or less, the entirety of the film. It isn't necessarily more memorable than the countless other moments of death-defying stunt work on display here, but it is an instance that exemplifies Miller's approach to this tale. It's daring, resourceful, amusing, and clearly communicated. The whole scene exists without any verbal prompts to explain what's happening, but Miller gives us everything we need to know in visual terms.

That's true, really, of the whole film, which begins with a top-heavy bit of narrated exposition from Max (a grunting, growling Tom Hardy). He was, as has been established in the previous three films of this franchise, a cop before world ended in a nuclear event prompted by a war for oil. Now, he wanders the wasteland, "hunted by scavengers and haunted by the past," namely the ghosts of people who died while under his protection.

In the film's prologue, Max is captured by a group of hairless men plastered in white chalk. They shackle him, tattoo his back with his blood type, and prevent his near-escape. They are members of the Citadel, a warrior society housed in and around massive rock formations in the middle of the desert.

The group is led by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a hulking figure who wears a jagged-tooth respirator and a plastic shell to protect his burned skin. At the start, we don't comprehend much of what's happening here. The screenplay reveals everything we need to know in small ways that gradually build to a startling picture of a twisted death cult built around the idea of eagerly fighting and dying for a ruthless tyrant, who lords over the realm from a skull-shaped hollow in the side of the cliff.

The film abruptly shifts perspective and, honestly, never really returns to our eponymous hero. The central figure here is actually Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, in a commanding performance that embodies equal measures of physical strength and emotional vulnerability), who has stolen a tanker in which the leader's "wives" are hidden. She has plans to bring them to safety in "the Green Place."

In the first of a series of lengthy action sequences, Max is chained to the front of an enemy car driven by Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a fighter with a death wish who later becomes an ally, while Furiosa, who has a mechanical arm to compensate for an amputation, is attempting to flee from and/or destroy that car—as well as an assortment of others (including one containing Joe's battle music, featuring a most dedicated guitarist). It's a nifty bit of tearing our sympathies, since we instinctually don't want anything to happen to our heroes but realize that they are, at the moment, indirectly set against each other. The film does the same thing soon after in an intense scene of hand-to-hand combat in which neither Max nor Furiosa is sure of the other's motives.

Words seem insufficient to describe the nearly non-stop barrage of carnage that follows. Cars flip and explode. Henchmen hurl detonating spears. Another tribe from the nearby Gas Town joins the pursuit, and the first sequence climaxes inside the all-encompassing amber of a sandstorm, where strobing streaks of white lightning highlight the combatants' faces and towering whirlwinds are able to lift a car to a fiery demise.

More important than what happens in this sequence and the other ones is how Miller, cinematographer John Seale, and editor Margaret Sixel ensure that every beat moves the action forward in a way that not only raises the stakes but also constantly reminds us of the arrangement of the participants. We know where everyone is at any given moment. We discover that we actually care about these characters and their fates (primarily Furiosa), which comes as a bit of a shock considering that there's barely time for words. Miller, McCarthy, and Lathouris know that actions reveal character, and they take advantage of the plethora of time available for those moments.

This is a film that repeatedly surprises us with how far Miller, his team, and the performers are willing to take it. We think we've seen it all in the first sequence, but that's just the start of what the film has to offer. Mad Max: Fury Road is a bold, ingenious thrill machine.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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