Moviegoers old enough to remember the 1980s may cherish memories of those gonzo, post-apocalyptic, B-movies where humans struggled to survive in either an urban or desert wasteland against gloomy odds. These low-budget, R-rated, schlock sagas with psychotic freaks dressed up gladiators who careened around in beatnik-style, dune buggies straight out of an auto graveyard were both ‘drive-in’ movie and VHS favorites. These lowbrow actioneers are definitely an acquired taste back then as well as now. Exploitation classics like “1990: The Bronx Warriors,” “Warriors of the Wasteland,” “2019 – After the Fall of New York,” “Exterminators Of The Year 3000,” and “Warrior of the Lost World” proliferated during the 80s after “Mad Max” surprised Hollywood and generated a market for this violent, slam-bang, dystopian nihilism. According to DVD Times, “‘Mad Max’ was shot on a budget of 400,000 Australian dollars, which is a tiny budget for such an action packed film. Up until ‘Blair Witch’ it held the record for greatest profit to budget ratio (It grossed $100 million USD eventually).” Not only did director George Miller make a superstar out of Mel Gibson with “Mad Max” (1979), but he also ushered in the grungy, low-brow, genre that eventually inspired big-budget replicas. Does anybody remember Kevin Costner’s “Waterworld?” The studio that produced “Waterworld” wanted to remake “Mad Max,” but they wanted to stage it on the high seas. Unfortunately, “Waterworld” sank at the box office owing to its catastrophic production woes and bad word of mouth. (I enjoyed it, but not as much as the “Mad Max” movies.) Thirty years after he wrapped the third entry in the “Mad Max” trilogy with the lackluster “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” (1985), George Miller has revived the resilient post-nuke warrior in “Mad Max: Fury Road” with Tom Hardy stepping into Mel Gibson’s shoes. About four years ago, Paul Miller—a Michigan native no relation to George—helmed a fan film “Mad Max Renegade” that filled in the gap between the first “Mad Max” and “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior.” If you weren’t or aren’t a 1980s movie aficionado, you may have trouble appreciating “Mad Max: Fury Road” (***OUT OF ****) with Charlize Theron as its dynamic heroine taking star billing over Tom Hardy’s eponymous protagonist. Happily, not only does “Mad Max: Fury Road” surpass the first three movies but it also slips in some subtle references to each of them.
When we first see Max (Tom Hardy of “The Dark Knight Rises”), he is standing with his back to the camera on a craggy zenith overlooking a parched landscape. In voice over narration, he explains that he used to be a policeman. Furthermore, he reveals that his past still haunts him as much as his doubtful future troubles him. Repeatedly, he has hallucinations of a little girl rush up and get in his face. Meantime, an agile two-headed lizard makes the mistake of scuttling too close to our hero, and Max gobbles it down without a qualm. No sooner has he climbed back into his car and driven off than a phalanx of smashed-up looking cars pursues him with a terrifying vengeance. Max crashes his car, and his dastardly captors drag him to an unspecified place in the desert at the end of a tether where a collection of monument-like buttes towers over the rugged terrain. This place is known as ‘the Citadel.’ My chief complaint about this spectacular looking, souped-up, action thriller is the lack of exposition not only about our resourceful hero but also the people and places in it. The lunatics that shanghai Max are called ‘Warboys.’ These bare-chested brigands cavort about in trousers and boots. They have painted their torsos flour-white from the waist up and wear Goth-like mascara. Clean-shaven skulls complete their ghoulish appearance. They worship a sadistic, tyrannical, leader named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne of the original “Mad Max”), who decks himself out in a plastic outfit with what appear to be oxygen hoses sprouting from a grotesque face mask with a bellows on his shoulders. Miller never divulges why Joe dons such a macabre apparatus. Joe rules from one of the buttes and controls the water supply. “Do not become addicted to water,” he warns, “it will take hold of you and you will resent its absence.” Meantime, he maintains a harem of young, curvaceous, Victoria’s Secret style models with which he procreates, while another harem of corpulent cuties yield buckets of breast milk from pumping units within the Citadel. Indeed, “Mad Max Fury Road” is not your conventional, run-of-the-mill, road trip.
Joe dispatches an eighteen-wheel, leviathan-like, tanker truck on regular forays for fuel to a nearby place called Gastown. He has assigned Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron of “Monster”) to cruise into the wastelands with an escort of his Warboys to replenish their gasoline supply. At the last minute, Furiosa goes rogue and plunges off-course into the desert. Initially, her heavily-armed escort simply believes she is complying with new orders. An outraged Joe assembles an armada of bizarre vehicles to pursue Furiosa. One of Joe’s Warboys, Nux (Nicholas Hoult of “X-Men: Days of Future Past”), desperately wants to commandeer a pursuit vehicle, but he has to take his ‘blood bag’ with him. Again, for reasons we’re never told, Nux must have a blood transfusion. Since his capture, Max has suffered horribly at the hands of these lunatics. The fanatical Warboys have covered his back into hieroglyphic tattoos and suspended him head down to furnish blood to Nux. During the feverish pursuit of Furiosa, Max manages to escape Nux and negotiates an uneasy truce with our heroine. Furiosa is no slouch and she proves in repeatedly throughout “Mad Max: Fury Road.” She is a crack shot with a rifle, and she has no qualms about shooting first and asking questions later. Max learns Furiosa is searching for her utopian homeland. She calls it ‘the green place.’ Moreover, a quintet of Joe’s wives has chosen to defect with her. One of the harem, The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Alice Huntington-Whiteley of “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”) is poised to give birth, and Joe is predictably incandescent with rage when she shields these treacherous fugitives.
Basically, “Mad Max: Fury Road” amounts to an adrenaline-laced, testosterone-laden, high-octane, fantasy boasting outlandish hybrid vehicles and amazing motorcycle aerobatics. The narrative unfolds in an anonymous desert in the distant future. At one point, a gargantuan dust storm teeming with twisters engulfs everybody. Max sits out the early part of the movie as a Citadel prisoner. Max wears a face mask slightly more revealing than the one Hardy donned as the maleficent Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises.” Hardy proves every bit as tenacious as Mel Gibson’s Max, and he encounters jeopardy at every juncture. Surprisingly, a lean, mean, buzz cut Charlize Theron steals the show from the taciturn Hardy. Although minus part of her left forearm, she wields a mechanical contraption that enables her to steer the big War Rig. Despite its scarcity of exposition, feminist-under-cut “Mad Max: Fury Road” qualifies as a surreal, entertaining, often suspenseful, but ultimately fast-paced demolition derby. You should strap yourself in for these outing, especially the 3-D version.