Though he’s now best known for his racist/anti-semitic/domestic abuse tendencies, sadly, Mel Gibson was once, lest we forget, a major international superstar, an Oscar-winning actor-director with at least three iconic roles (including Scottish legend William Wallace in Braveheart and Lethal Weapons’ memorably unstable Martin Riggs) and more than a billion at the box office. He even played Hamlet opposite Ian Holm, Glenn Close, and Paul Schofield. Now, thirty five years on, the gauntlet of his breakout role, as Max Rockatansky, has passed to Tom Hardy for Mad Max: Fury Road.
From his ferocious performance as criminally insane real-life convict Bronson in Nicholas Winding Refn’s theatrically-styled 2008 film of the same name to his quietly magnetic turn in last years’ slow-burning Locke — a literal one-man show, I awarded it five stars — the British Hardy is rapidly building up a reputation as a formidable character actor. While Gibson brought a rough-edged charm to the role of Max, Hardy’s interpretation is more akin to his Bane from The Dark Knight Rises: all anguished eyes and inarticulate grunting, he spends the film’s first act wearing a muzzle.
The now-seventy year old George Miller’s approach to the Saharan wasteland of the Australian Outback has become more mythic than ever. The stocky, chrome-jawed Immortan Joe (the original Mad Max’s Toecutter, Hugh Keays-Byrne) rules over a skull-adorned cliff face and an army of albino berserkers, the War Boys, casually dispersing life with his vast underground reservoir of water. When his trusted lieutenant, Imperator Furiosa (a steely, one-armed Charlize Theron) takes off with the War Rig — and Joe’s personal harem, the Five Wives — the chase is on.
While the original Mad Max was a character-driven parable about the breakdown of society, the doctrine of “roadworthiness” versus the remnants of law and order, the rest of the series largely stripped this commentary away for the sake of absurd and outrageous action sequences. In this regard, Fury Road bears a remarkable resemblance to the later half of Road Warrior, fending off a gang of variously wheeled assailants from the roof and cab of a trailer truck. All that’s changed, in fact, is the scale and a marginally less casual approach to bumping off the supporting cast.
As has always been the way with the Mad Max’s, Miller’s film takes a “more is more” approach. There are three tribes this time, the other two led by the grossly corpulent, silver-nosed People Eater and cackling, munition-toothed Bullet Farmer (John Howard & Richard Carter); a fiery dust storm with plumes like hellish tree trunks; and a surreal swamp through which raven-like stilt men wander at twilight. Thanks to the presence of Nicholas Hoult as maniacal, try-hard minion Nux — with added vulnerability — might even mean not only teenage boys are sneaking into the cinema.
As befits a large-budget reboot, Mad Max: Fury Road ups the madness factor. Max himself, previously more traumatised than outright loony, suffers from disorienting visions of his murdered family. Becoming caught up in Furiosa’s escape attempt, he joins them out of expediency — Max’s own V8 Interceptor is notably sidelined — before mutely coming to ally himself with their cause. Max’s unremonstrative pragmatism is a match for Furiosa’s; the film unquestioningly presents them as equals with a growing respect for each other, one that refreshingly never blossoms into romance.
However, with the added scale comes a strange sense of artificiality. A big part of their impact of Maxs I-III was in that they, crucially, felt “real”: every fall felt threatening, every blow bone-breaking. Though 90% of Fury Road’s stunts are reportedly practical in this age of CGI they can’t help but feel… not. The film is an orange-hued juggernaut, full of grit and nitrous and tarnished metal, with action sequences so overblown they can’t but overwhelm any character intention. Still, given the price tag on, say, Furious 7, $150 million for this much movie feels like a distinct bargain.
IN BRIEF: As the first of the long-unawaited ‘80s “sequels” due out this year, Mad Max: Fury Road is a hugely encouraging development. Two generations have reached adulthood without a new edition to the franchise but the Ozploitation action-adventure genre feels like it never left our screens. Hardy claims to be attached to a further four films while Miller will only admit to having another two in the pipeline. While there’s no immediate pressure to get them up before our eyes, it’s heartening to know there’s still some creative fuel (or should that be guzzoline?) left in the old tank. It even passes the Bechdel Test!