Revving its engines and spurting jets of flame like not just another franchise reboot, but an entire genre makeover, Mad Max: Fury Road is the sort of undeniably bugged-out hot mess-terpiece that would make even the most dedicated glitter spray-paint huffers bolt upright in their seats. Aesthetically speaking, it takes no prisoners. What the (per Armond White) Von Sternbergian overtures of The Chronicles of Riddick were to the svelte muscularity of the original Pitch Black, what the battery-acid wash of the overloaded Crank: High Voltage was to the Energizer Bunny first installment—that’s what Fury Road is to the now comparatively sinewy Mad Max films that precede it. In his book Film Follies, critic Stuart Klawans perceptively performed a taxonomy of the “movies for people who want to die from too much cinema.” With Fury Road, septuagenarian Aussie auteur George Miller seems scarily willing to take Klawans up on that bet.
Though the film fades in on an apocalyptically laconic wasteland vista with Max Rockatansky’s (Tom Hardy) back to the camera, Miller quickly slaps his iconic road warrior’s back to the wall. Literally from the movie’s second shot on, Miller keeps his own happy feet firmly planted on the accelerator. No sooner has he finished gnawing on a two-headed lizard delicacy than Max is caught and chained up in the vast catacombs of a large, parasitic race of warriors. With translucent skin (straight out of The Omega Man) covered in plague buboes, the War Boys use Max and other healthy specimens as their human blood bags. The colony’s vast edifices, columns of rationed water, and class structures pronounced via vertical orientation all suggest nothing so much as a gristly, scatological spin on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, with the Skeletor-meets-Darth Vader despot King Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter in 1979’s Mad Max) perched above all.
The exposition is as elemental as its visual presentation is saturated. And the same goes for Fury Road’s core plot, which kicks in immediately as Charlize Theron’s imposing Imperator Furiosa (sporting a buzzcut undoubtedly meant to recall both Sigourney Weaver’s Lt. Ripley and Renée Falconetti’s Joan of Arc) deviates from the warpath to make a break for the promised land with five very precious and nubile pieces of Immortan Joe’s “property” in tow. Cue the dubstep chase music. (No, really: Joe’s gear-grinding phalanx includes a three-story-high wall of mobile speakers seemingly driven by a metal guitarist and powered by six timpani-smashing brutes.) Max is thrust unwittingly into the thick of Joe and Furiosa’s game of chicken, finding that being strapped to the front of a nightmarish, turbo-powered S&M dune buggy like some impossibly thick-necked hood ornament does a lot for settling one’s usually up-for-grabs allegiances.
Miller punishes his audience with pleasure, orchestrating the rubber-burning pandemonium with the illicit smirk of someone who knows he’s giving us exactly what we want—only way more of it than they ever thought they could handle. Way more than the film’s 120 minutes can handle, judging by the breakneck speed utilized by Miller’s cinematographer John Seale (apparently relishing the opportunity to rip apart the same desert sands that netted him an Oscar for The English Patient). A significant chunk of the movie’s copious action sequences appear heavily under-cranked, zipping from one explosion to the next like a silent Sennett comedy from the depths of hell, or like an impatient ADHD savant’s DVD player caught perpetually on 1.5x mode. In an era where franchises routinely break up single chapters across two box-office-grubbing installments, Fury Road shoehorns enough ideas for two films into one bulging package. (And, if reports are any indication and there are at least two further installments in the waiting, we’ve finally arrived at the gearhead Götterdämmerung.)
The first trio of Mad Max films focused on the paucity of oil as a prime plot driver. Fury Road, in contrast, focuses on the lack of water. It’s a swap that has obviously eerie prescience in California’s waning years, but more to the point it belies Miller’s true about-face. The series that made its mark centering around that avatar for persuasive chauvinism, Mel Gibson, now sees sensitive millennial hunk Hardy’s Max submitting to the will of Theron’s maternal sentinel and her fertile, if not outright expectant, charges. But The Divine Fuel Cells of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood this is not. If oil and water are the two main signposts of Miller’s symbolic concerns, their incompatibility emerges in flamboyant fashion during the film’s climax when (spoiler alert!) Furiosa’s distaff brigade lead Joe’s meathead army into the suggestive folds of a rocky impasse. The resulting pileup of twisted metal and decapitated ego may well be the biggest, most muscular depiction of the masculine manifest destiny wiping out in action-movie history.