With the initial Mad Max film trilogy, director George Miller established an idiosyncratic but distinctly Australian franchise that earned first a cult then a mainstream following and provided a springboard for star Mel Gibson’s ascent into the Hollywood stratosphere. After a mere 30 years Miller has delivered the fourth instalment Mad Max: Fury Road.
The film has thus far had a rapturous response from most reviewers and audiences and this appears to be largely due to its well-staged action sequences, elaborate stunt work and its comparatively sparing use of CGI in favour of bruising practical effects. These qualities will not, however, be enough for some viewers (including this reviewer) to overlook its many pitfalls. With its wafer thin plot, poor character development, a silly post-apocalyptic tribal aesthetic reminiscent of a mid-80’s Duran Duran video and a plethora of irritatingly over-the-top performances this film was a chore to sit through.
As in the earlier Mad Max films, Fury Road takes place in a post-apocalyptic desert world in which resources are scarce and marauding gangs rule the highways. A monstrous despot named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne – the Toe Cutter from the original Mad Max film) has established a society of sorts, a tribal patriarchy in which women are enslaved breeders. When a group of Joe’s concubines escape with a tough-as-nails female truck driver named Imperator Furiosa (a shaven-headed Charlize Theron) in her enormous “war rig”, Joe and his murderous minions give chase. Heading toward the fabled utopia called “the green place” Furiosa encounters a taciturn but handily violent ally in the troubled former cop Max Rokatansky (Tom Hardy) and a rogue member of Joe’s crazed clan named Nux (Nicholas Hoult).
If you think this sounds like Max has been relegated to a secondary character then you’re right; Max barely appears in the film’s first half hour then when he does he wears a silly mask for much of the time and barely says a word. If Tom Hardy was trying to establish himself in an iconic role and prove he could fill Mel’s boots this hardly seems the way to do it. Much of the focus is on Charlize Theron’s Furiosa and to her credit she gives the character a convincing mix of toughness, resourcefulness and compassion. Her performance does not, however, deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Sigourney Weaver’s in Alien or Linda Hamilton’s in the Terminator films.
The limitations on character development are due more to the script rather than Theron or Hardy’s efforts. Mad Max: Fury Road is mostly composed of vehicular destruction in scenes that look like a cross between the Paris to Dakar rally and a Crusty Demons of Dirt show. Fans of the original film, the Fast and the Furious movies and car crashes generally will love it but viewers who find relentless scenes of auto destruction tedious will struggle to sit through this film.
Worse, though, is the ridiculously broad over-the-top acting with Joe and his horde of anaemic baldy henchmen (known as ‘warboys’) talking in unbearably silly voices that consist of guttural death metal growls and hyper-manic squeaks. The weird voices and the characters’ fidgety behaviour is presumably meant to create a sense of crazed, out-of-control nightmare world but it’s just clunky and embarrassing.
As a result of the cartoonish acting it’s very difficult to take any of the characters seriously and connect with them emotionally. Despite an attempt to give Max psychological baggage through tortured flashbacks of his deceased daughter, this film has no emotional impact. Because we don’t feel anything for the characters there’s little tension and threat when they’re attacked so the film’s mainstay, the action scenes, are far less effective than they could have been.
On the positive side the film features stunning cinematography with jaw-dropping scenes of the Namibian desert landscape where much of it was filmed. Also, the film is to be commended for adopting a strong feminist stance in its championing of Furiosa and her attempts to free the women from the vile Immortan Joe.
Many audiences will and obviously have been content to imbibe the endless action sequences in this film but for those not satisfied by stunts, explosions and grinding metal, Mad Max: Fury Road will be a bewildering and often annoying experience.
Nick’s rating: **1/2.
Director(s): George Miller.
Release date: 14th May 2015.
Running time: 120 mins.
Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM. Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. http://subcultureentertainment.com/2014/02/the-good-the-bad-the-ugly-film-show
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