Ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunck, back in 1985, the "Mad Max" trilogy unceremoniously sputtered to an anticlimactic halt rather than going out on a furious, nitro-boosted blast. That tepid finale, "Beyond Thunderdome," would become the post-apocalyptic Outback series' weak link, an unsatisfactory follow up to its crowning production. That film, "The Road Warrior" (1981), not only elevated Mel Gibson to bankable star status in Hollywood, it seamlessly spun together an odd olio of diverse genres without faltering into camp and boasted some of the greatest real-action car stunts recorded on film. What director George Miller and Gibson revved up was an instant cult classic, a box office smash (it covered its budget in the U.S. in one week) and a can-do mashup from Down Under that would become a model that many would try to copy, but few could emulate.
With “Mad Max: Fury Road,” (released May 15) the series is back on track, and boldly so. It took decades to get here, but it’s well worth the wait, something well oiled in lineage and ready to sear into the minds of a new generation of thrill-injected converts.
Before understanding "Fury Road" you have to recognize the cornerstone that branded the reluctant franchise back in 1979 and unearthed a 21-year-old baby-faced Gibson.
Something of a different texture, less polished and more gritty, "Mad Max" was conceived out of the OPEC oil crisis in the mid-'70s and the demented juices of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper. Poetically subversive, the film became a political incineration of glut and the virtuous notion of humanity as inherently good, as few stuck their necks out for their fellow man as civilization slowly imploded.
One subtle key ingredient that helped make "Mad Max" and "The Road Warrior" remain so indelible over time was their pointedly baroque scores composed by Brian May (not to be confused with the renowned guitarist from Queen) that effortlessly flowed with the action, underscoring it and heightening moments of tension with emphatic fist-pumping punctuation. Their classic composition has stood the test of time. For "Thunderdome," which co-starred pop icon Tina Turner as the malevolent overseer of a desert stranded bastion of humanity, Miller went with the diva and a score that sorely missed May’s deft touch.
In resurrecting the franchise, Miller knew that re-partnering with Gibson would not be possible as Max was conceived, and gestated, as something akin to James Bond or Tarzan, an ageless warrior battling arch-villains on a landscape changed only by the shifting sands of the zeitgeist of the moment. Jettisoned too, in the new millennia recreation, is the whole oil grab notion, tilled under by today’s alternative energy efforts and climate change fears. Had “Max’s” seminal inception been in the now, one could almost imagine the Lord Humongous, battle axe in hand, lording over a vast desert wasteland covered by a sheet of solar panels harnessed to charge ghoulishly tricked-out electric V8s.
In the new "Mad Max: Fury Road," the petrol, so precious in "The Road Warrior," seems relatively abundant by comparison — and bullets too. Out in the desert sea, patrolled by clans of punked-out marauders, there's the Bullet Farm and Gas Town, a massive refinery that belches evil carbon clouds into the sky. What's scarce in the 2015 "Max" is water, green space and nubile women who can bear children. Those that can are stunning to behold in thin gauze that might drive some teenage boys wild as they're played by Victoria's Secret models or the progeny of rock ‘n’ roll royalty — Lenny Kravitz's daughter, Zoë and Elvis Presley's granddaughter, Riley Keough.
We never get to go to the Bullet Farm or Gas Town. They remain distant images on the red horizon as Furiosa (Charlize Theron), charged with a shopping/raid mission by "Fury Road's" resident baddie, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, so unforgettable as the Toecutter in the original "Mad Max" and downright outlandish here looking like a Morlock on steroids) a.k.a. Dad (probably because he holds the keys to all the babes' chastity belts), decides to go off course on a little joy ride. This doesn't bode well with Joe, the Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter) or any of the other bloodthirsty factions suddenly on the tail of Furiosa and her war tanker loaded with live flesh and hope.
Where is the new Max in all this? Yes, Tom Hardy, the guy who was a sheer menace as Bane in "The Dark Knight Rises" and so thespian in "Locke," makes a fine Max. He's the draw, but this is really Theron's film. Her Furiosa, an enhanced 2.0 version of the Woman Warrior from "The Road Warrior," comes fully imbued with the resolve and maternal sensibilities of Sigourney Weaver's Ripley from the "Alien" franchise. Part cyborg and always thinking ahead, she drives the film while Keays-Byrne gobbles up chunks of the screen time too. That main guy, listed up in the title, he's just along for the ride — and what a ride it is.
When we first meet Max, he's barely finished eating a two headed gecko — raw! — before being picked off by a detachment of Joe's albino tweekers and harnessed as a sack of blood, mainlined into the arteries of the chosen War Boys — fanatic and finely conditioned malevolents, who like many of today's indoctrinates of terror are willing to die for a "greater cause" without understanding the ramifications of the chess game being played above their heads.
"Fury Road" is one long chase sequence that borrows much from "The Road Warrior" (the music box nostalgically symbolizing innocence, a faulty sawed-off shot gun and a resilient tanker fortified in barbwire and under siege from a limitless foe), but also puts its own stamp on the series without tipping it over. Miller who has made 10 features — four "Maxes," two "Happy Feet" and a "Babe" — had been incubating the project for a decade and a half. His diligent care and commitment to the perfect shot and live-action stunt work — not CGI enhanced zaniness (though there is some) like the "Fast and Furious" films — is aesthetically evident and underscored by the furious, yet fluid editing. As far as chase scenes go, this is as close to William Friedkin making "The French Connection" or "To Live and Die in L.A." on the "really did that" scale as one might see in their lifetime these days. The thrill per second ratio is off the charts, not to mention a tribe of women called the Vuvalini and a monster rock show that follows Joe's every move. Some might be well within their purview to call "Fury Road" bombastic, but none in their right mind could ever call it dull.
Whether Miller set out to make "Fury Road" as an eco-pro message (green space is nonexistent) or not, the articulation of oppression, especially when it comes to the indentured women assigned for breeding and feeding, is squarely there and timely. Hardy and Theron play off each other beautifully too.
If there's any throttle back to "Fury Road" it's that the new Max lacks soul and purpose. Gibson's warrior of the wasteland was something you could sink your teeth into and feel. The man lost his wife and child and that's what pushed him over to the edge of moral ambiguity — think Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name. It was visceral and real. Here, Hardy's Max is just a survivor haunted by the past in a way that feels half-hearted, blanched and doesn't fuel the character. It's inconsequential, however, as "Fury Road" is all about adrenaline and forward motion. There's never any let up from the get go. Before Max can utter his first words he's already been snatched, shackled (Bane-esque face plate and all) and mounted to the grill of a muscle car with an IV running to his blood needy host driving the jalopy of mayhem hot after Furiosa.
In the end, Miller has done it and done it righteously — reimagining a sturdy franchise and living up to the original, while kicking the tired reboot to the curb. "Fury Road" is rife with activity and fertile with ideas. Rumor has it there's two follow ups in the works. If Miller's integrity is a staunch as it is here, they're sure to be smashes as well.
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in The Boston Phoenix, Paste Magazine, The Rumpus, Thieves Jargon, Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere. You can follow Tom on Twitter @TBMeek3 and read more at TBMeek3.wordpress.com.