Mad Max: Thunder Road
36 years ago, an Australian physician named George Miller financed and directed a small action movie entitled Mad Max, starring the then relatively unknown Mel Gibson. Shot on roads in the vast center of Australia nearly as sparse as the movie’s budget, the film’s doomsday tone and violent action drew healthy audiences among the under 30 set as an example of the fresh direction then being taken in action movies. It’s success allowed Miller to stop practicing medicine in order to follow his cinematic passions and in the decades since, he’s dabbled in everything from uplifting screenwriting (Lorenzo’s Oil) to automation (Happy Feet) to movies aimed at children (Babe). But as a lover of action films, (which he insists are not only his favorites, but the best of film’s genres) he’s returned to the Max franchise not once but three more times, with Mad Max 2; The Road Warrior (1981) Mad Max: BeyondThunderdome (1985) and finally this film, released late last week. Like a surrealist painter working with an ever-larger canvas and more hallucinatory worldview, this latest entry in the franchise is technically brilliant, visually ravishing…and so thoroughly dystopian in outlook that it ranks as perhaps film’s most aggressively nihilistic production ever.
Tom Hardy (Child 44, Locke, Inception) assumes the role Mel Gibson played as an ex-cop who wanders the bleak landscapes of the Australian outback, hounded by demented killers and sexual deviants of such a distorted sort they appear to be a new sub-human species born of a disturbing marriage between bad acid trips and Japanese magna comic book characters. Max is captured by a Immortan Joe, a grotesque warlord who controls the region’s water supply, which he doles out to his dehydrated subjects via a bizarre assemblage of medieval machinery and a cast of loyal disciples as physically mutilated as they are mentally deranged. When Joe dispatches his lieutenant Furiosa, (Charlize Theron) to drive a huge oil tanker across the desert to replenish the community’s fuel supply, she secretly loads 5 of Joe’s nubile (and pregnant) wives in the truck’s cab and diverts away from her dune-buggy escorts in an attempt to return to “The Green”, an area of still verdant land where Furiosa was born and raised.
When the tanker’s outriders realize that she’s going AWOL, Immortan Joe dispatches a motorized armada to recapture Furiosa, with Mad Max along as cannon fodder to help in subduing her. But Max slips his chains (he’s mounted like a hood ornament on the lead pursuit vehicle) and joins Furiosa in her dash across the burning sands…only to reach “The Green” and discover it’s as environmentally ravaged as the landscape the movie’s been displaying in its first 90 minutes.
What to do? At Max’s suggestion, Furiosa and her crew of fleeing wives decide to reverse course and knock Immortan Joe off his Dalisque-like throne. Another climatic battle ensues before Furiosa is recognized as Joe’s successor while Max slips away to fight injustice somewhere else in an environment that doesn’t appear sufficient to support a small colony of salamanders.
Miller’s genius lies in his ability to marry a visually striking point of view with rigorous attention to technical detail and an adolescent glee in creating the most disturbing images possible. He’s successfully topped himself each time in this quartet of post-apocalyptical fantasies, but he’s finally arrived at the point where his characters are so grotesque they’re simply uninteresting. Max is shorn of the hope he possessed in the earlier movies, while Theron’s Furiosa never displays the nuances that might have made her avowedly feminist ideals appealing.
For all practical purposes, Fury Road is actually a remake of director John Ford’s 76 year old classic Stagecoach in which the members of a small, endangered community (the random occupants of a stagecoach) must race across the desert to the safety of a far off town while being pursued by an army of Indian savages. At a brief 96 minutes (and the then gigantic production budget of $392,000) Ford and his young star John Wayne made one of the most celebrated movies of all time. Miller spent a reported $150 million on this production which, thanks to superb editing, pared 450 hours of footage down to the film’s running time of 120 minutes. Even at that length, the relentless violence and disturbing images make this one too long and way too disturbing for those 18 years of age and under…and just as troubling for those of us many years older.
The Verdict- A nihilistic orgy of violence, presented with dazzling visual energy and the director’s one-of-a kind cinematic style.
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