‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ takes new direction

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Digital First Media

In 1979, writer/director/producer, George Miller created, “Mad Max” the progenitor of the post-apocalyptic action adventure genre. The film became an international box office sensation.

Mel Gibson played the titular leather-clad protagonist, Max Rockatansky, in the film and its two sequels, 1981’s “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” and 1985’s “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.” It turned the obscure actor into a world-wide star.

By 2003, the fourth film was green lit with a budget of $100 million. Alas, it entered development hell. An unprecedented rainfall had transformed the once barren Australian desert into a lush landscape, full of foliage. It no longer could be used as the desolate setting for the film. Location scouts came up with a virtually unpopulated, desert section of the Namibia to serve as a plausible replacement for Australian outback. However, in the aftermath of 9/11, security concerns deterred the mounting of a big budget film in a remote, third world country.

Meanwhile, Miller won an Oscar for directing “Happy Feet,” an upbeat, animated kid’s film. It was about as far from the jaundiced tone of “Mad Max” trilogy as one could imagine.

After a hiatus of three decades from the last film in the series, the new chapter was finally ready to shoot. Gibson had once seemingly owned the lead role in perpetuity. However, off screen, Gibson had experienced a public meltdown. In addition, he had simply aged out of the role.

Tom Hardy, the star of “Bronson,” “Locke” and “The Drop” was cast in the coveted titular role. Those, who savored Hardy’s performances in those films, eagerly awaited what he would do in the lead.

There was one little thing that enthusiasts had overlooked. Here, the iconic figure of Mad Max has been reduced to a supporting role in the film that bears his name. For much of the film, he is a muzzled hood ornament on a speeding car.

So, who fills the void? That would be Charlize Theron in the role of Imperator Furiosa. Shorn of her usual luxuriant blonde hair, Theron plays a one-armed feminist heroine. Promotional posters for the film presaged the change. Theron was in the foreground with Hardy behind here. In the opening credits, Theron’s name is placed above Hardy’s, albeit skewed to the right.

When the film was released, the blogosphere was inundated with indignant protestations. How could the filmmakers treat poor Max so shabbily?

“Mad Max: Fury Road” is not so much a sequel or a reboot as it is a reimagining of the extant lore. Here, a series of global calamities in the year 2060 has triggered the downfall of human civilization.

Sporting a death’s head mask with outsized teeth, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), has emerged as the Fascistic leader of the replacement totalitarian society, known as The Wasteland.  He commands a military force, known as the War Boys, a band of ghoulish skin heads. To pacify the restive public, Immortan Joe intermittently doles out rations of Aqua Cola, parlance for water in this Brave New World.

Immortan Joe had taken five wives, including The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) and Toast the Knowing (Zoë Kravitz). He maintains this harem to breed heirs. Apparently, the wives aren’t exactly thrilled with being sex slaves. So, they contact Imperator Furiosa, hoping that she will enable them to escape.

Imperator Furiosa recognizes that to make her way through the desert she will need the assistance of a guide. She tries to convince Max, an erstwhile highway patrolman, to help them, However, Max is a loner, who wants no part of this quixotic venture. After Max is captured, then tortured by Immortans Joe, he has a change of heart.

What follows is an extended chase scene with Immortans Joe and the War Boys in hot pursuit of Imperator Furiosa and her fleeing group. The film is full of imaginatively engineered stunts, supervised by second unit director and stunt coordinator Guy Norris. These feature practical effects, a welcome respite from the artificiality of C.G.I. As stupendous as these stunts undeniably are, they fail to compensate for the film’s lack of a substantive narrative.

Intermittently, we see Max being haunted by visions of atrocities that he had apparently failed to prevent. These provide us with a tantalizing glimmer of what had happened, but we are left wanting more. Similarly, what is the personal history of Imperator Furiosa? Doesn’t she warrant a more substantive back story?

“Mad Max: Fury Road” is a visually stunning film. However, it is plagued with undeniable narrative deficiencies.

*** R (for intense sequences of violence throughout, and for disturbing images) 120 minutes. Warner Brothers and Village Roadshow

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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