Who knew I'd be fighting so hard against the tide about this of all things! Everyone and there grandma seems to love Fury Road. I, however, do not...
It has been many, many years since I've seen any of the Mad Max films and, considering that the final part of the original trilogy came out some thirty years ago, I'd wager I'm not alone in that. Indeed, I would wager that a huge portion of the film's target audience (read: teenage boys) have never even seen any of Max's previous cinematic exploits.
Now, since I remember next to nothing about any of the previous films, I can't say with any certainty just how much Fury Road actually references them. What I can say though, was that for the opening act of the film I really had no idea what was going on. Oh sure, I got that we were in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, where water is of ultimate value and human life is not. I even got that our nominal "hero" is a bloke named Max, this time played by the weirdly miscast Tom Hardy, who is clearly plagued by some past tragedy and who spends much of his time getting the shit beaten out of him. I also figured out that the pale, freaky looking geeks were the baddies and that the horribly scarred bloke in the Skeletor half-mask was the film's Big Bad.
Actually, scratch that. I did know what was going on. I just didn't know why I should care.
After a quick bit of monologuing and an even quicker introduction to a group of characters that, as it so happens, are far less important than they may first appear, we are thrown into the first of the film's many, many action set pieces. And, make no mistake, like just about every single action set piece in the film, it's a doozy. Superbly directed with real visual flair and an explosive, propulsive energy that relies more on physical effects than on over-baked CGI, these action scenes feel both timeless and old fashioned in the best possible ways.
It's phenomenal stuff, basically, but it utterly failed to move me. Simply put, I just didn't care about what was going on on screen. As we've established, I may have actually understood the basics of what was going on but I completely lacked any context for why these things were happening and, most crucially, why I should give the slightest damn about what happens to anyone on screen. Perhaps, had I remembered the events of the previous films and anything at all about its titular character, the orgy of ultra-violence, junked vehicles and ugly subhumans might have made some impact on me. As it was, I found myself admiring the mayhem and director George Miller's undeniable talents as an action director but I felt otherwise entirely detached from anything that was going on on-screen.
The good news is that the film does actually introduce some humanity, some character motivation and some plot as it goes along but these only go some way towards solving the film's narrative inertia. Charlize Theron clearly plays the hero of the film, as she conveys a group of the Big Bad's abused wives across the wasteland towards an almost mythical "Green Place" where they can start their lives anew and she can finally get redemption for... something that happened in her past? I can't recall if the film actually explained that, to be honest. Along the way, this group of models-turned-actresses-turned-desert-waifs run into Max himself but to no real purpose. What occurs next is a hero's journey that feels both overplayed and undercooked at the same time; where the grandiosity of the mission is woefully ill-matched to how sketchily defined everything else is. Again, I simply didn't care enough for any of this to really move me.
The film's biggest flaw by far though is Mad Max himself. Hardy is a spectacularly good actor, one of his generation's finest, but his character-acting skills are wasted on a cipher of a character. You would need a movie star with megawatts of charisma and screen presence to pull off a character this ill-defined and Tom Hardly simply isn't it. '80s Mel Gibson might have been, as much as I hate to admit it and give any credit to a guy who has shown himself to be a fairly shocking racist, anti-semite, misogynist and religious-freak, but Hardy, phenomenal actor as he is, simply isn't. Frankly, despite the film's title, you could easily remove Max himself from the entire film and it would barely miss a beat.
That's the bad stuff. And, yes, there is quite a lot of it. There is some definite good to be found here, however - even if it's goodness that gets consumed by all the bad, resulting in a film that isn't just disappointing but one that feels like a real missed opportunity.
Quite aside for the film's brilliantly realized - but, because of the film's storytelling weaknesses, somewhat tedious - action set pieces, Mad Max: Fury Road is simply a delight on a visual, no, sensual level., culminating in the most beautiful "ugly" film I've seen in a long time. The film is peopled by hideous half-men, grotesque violence, desolate (and I mean desolate) vistas and a monochromatic colour palette of various shades of dirt-brown but all this ugliness adds up to a surprisingly sumptuous visual feast. It looks ripped straight out of an issue of 2000 AD or Heavy Metal and looks all the better for it.
The grotesqueness of the film is also matched by a really imaginative visual design that is by turns striking, weird, off-putting and bleakly hilarious - and it's all matched by a honkingly overpowering and bombastic score. And when the mad, often in-film score and the madder visuals collide in the film's best visual gag, the film comes very close to reaching a level of post-narrative genius that almost makes me forgive all of my other, usually overwhelming misgivings. It doesn't but it comes surprisingly close.
As it is, it just reminds me of just how great the film could have been had someone pad as much attention to the basic scripting as they did to the film's many magnificent technical achievements. Oh, what could have been...