This feels like a film that shouldn’t exist. How is George Miller’s bonkers, exhausting, no-future smash-’em-up Mad Max: Fury Road not one of those almost-was boondoggles mourned and dreamed of by fans, a revered director’s impossible vision that, thanks to the un-stout hearts of studio bean counters, never actually vaulted from storyboard to screen?
But Fury Road somehow is. In the era of green-screened blockbusters, we have an R-rated studio release on which a seventy-year-old director blew hundreds of millions of dollars crashing real cars into each other in Namibia. You know the charge that Furious 7 feels like what you would get if you asked a Hot Wheels-loving ten-year-old to work out the beats of a screenplay? Fury Road is what the kid might dream up at fourteen, stoned at the motocross, keyed up on Mountain Dew and old Conan comics, except instead of writing a script, he’s lighting those Hot Wheels on fire and chucking them at your face.
Here is a movie whose lead (Tom Hardy), fifteen minutes in, is lashed to the hood of a hopped-up, flame-flatulent Chevy like the figurehead maiden on the prow of some sixteenth-century ship. A villain — one of the film’s many bald, scarred-over, mud-caked, cancer-ridden, raccoon-eyed albinos — has chained Hardy’s Mad Max there as a fuel source. Turns out that in this particular wasteland, the bad guys need to siphon off the blood of the rest of us, especially while rocketing across the flatlands in a convoy that looks like Gwar’s remake of Cannonball Run. Hardy just hangs on the hood through the first of many relentless, terrifying, time-stopping road wars. Max has an IV jacked into him, feeding the driver, an action-film innovation that had me squirming.
Like those of the Mad Max films from three decades ago, Fury Road’s script is stripped down to rage and momentum. Neither Hardy nor Charlize Theron speak much as they rumble across the desert, and what we know of their characters comes from observed detail: the way he’s happy to abandon Theron and the young women she has saved to the warlord pursuing them, or the way she hides a gun in every cranny of the cab of her rig, and then a knife, too, in the stick of her stick shift. His motivation, at first, is mere survival; it richens, eventually, to survival and hoping to get a barbed death mask off his face. Hers is more complex, so the movie has her say it out loud: “Redemption.”
Theron is every bit the swaggering tough Hardy is. The women she’s rescued are the supermodel wives of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a local god-king in a bucktoothed gas mask. The brides prove capable road warriors themselves, but they’re later outclassed by a ladies-only tribe of sexagenarian ass-stompers on motorbikes. Like Max and Nux (Nicholas Hoult), an albino slave of that god-king, they’re survivors trying to escape the exploitative logic of Miller’s wasteland, which will harvest a commodity from anyone powerless: Max’s blood, Nux’s strength, the wives’ fertility, and the breast milk of the women Immortan Joe has imprisoned in his dairy.
The story is streamlined, but the action isn’t. At one point Miller has four different convoys pursuing Theron’s rig, and his cameras seem to be fighting to keep up with the dozens of cars on the screen at any moment. Hollywood action today is usually a stuttering blur of CGI bone-crushing, where you have to take the movie’s word for it that something worth your awe has happened. Miller’s car-v.-car dust-ups are something different altogether: real cars, practical stuntwork, and the return of the thrill of believing what you’re seeing — and wondering how they pulled it off, especially as those albino warriors swoop up and down the caravans on harpoons and chains and great bending flagpoles.
Still, for all the ways the movie feels singular and impossible, like something the studio suits couldn’t possibly have signed off on, Fury Road also feels entirely of its era. I admire its craft and cruel wit, and its willingness to trust us to work out the particulars of its world, but it lulled me into that familiar state of summertime action fatigue, of being worn down by the violence rather than geared up, of waiting the mayhem out rather than tracking it. It’s an end-of-the-world thriller that can bum you out by suggesting the death of our own film culture. About ninety minutes in, as spiked-over jalopies caromed again and again into Theron’s big rig, my dazzlement sank into something like horror: What if the rage of Fury Road is the only feeling studio movies of the future bother to stir in us? We’re strapped to the hood, and who knows what’s being siphoned from us.