Mad Max: Fury Road review – beware of battle fatigue

Mad Max

There is much to enjoy about this adrenaline-fuelled reboot, but two hours of relentless action can get a bit tiresome

Deep Purple famously asked their sound engineers to make “everything louder than everything else”, a phrase variously adopted by the likes of Motörhead and Meat Loaf to characterise their OTT ethos. It’s clearly struck a chord with George Miller as he reboots his low-budget 1979 road-warrior hit with more money, more trucks, and much more noise. Watching Mad Max: Fury Road is the cinematic equivalent of putting your head in the bass-bin at a death-metal concert where everything is turned up to eleventy-stupid. Hell, we even get sonic assault vehicles armed with drummers, speaker stacks and a mutant axe-man wielding an Ace Frehley-style guitar-slash-flamethrower. Add to this Finnish Eurovision winners Lordi’s wardrobe and a shooting/editing style designed to make you feel like you’ve been run over while being shouted at, and this insane post-apocalyptic pile-up runs little risk of understatement. Make no mistake, this is not a film of light and shade – it is an orgy of loud and louder, leaving us alternately exhilarated, exasperated and exhausted.

Tom Hardy is Max Rockatansky, chased and imprisoned by the vampiric War Boys of Immortan Joe (one-time Toecutter Hugh Keays-Byrne), bolted into a post-Bane face mask and used as a human blood bag. This is a world in which water, oil and ammunition are currency, with a sideline in “mother’s milk” pumped from steam-punk contraptions that cross Terry Gilliam with Tinto Brass. Teaming up with renegade War Rig trucker Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, sporting an Alien3-era Ripley crop), Max and co strike out in search of “the Green Place” – a mystical land of mothers, a lush riposte to Waterworld’s elusive “DryLand”. Their cargo is a highly combustible cocktail of petrol and pregnancy, Joe’s enslaved wives (dressed in diaphanous floaties and One Million Years BC haute couture) making a bid for freedom from his breeding farm. En route, they encounter an array of variously hairy stilt-walking, motorbiking, chainsawing crazies, suggesting that a militarised wing of the French circus troupe Archaos has escaped into the desert and gone feral.

Mad Max: Fury Road trailer.

While the first Mad Max was essentially a stripped-down Roger Corman revenge movie (high on concept, low on budget), this head-banging $150m fourth instalment – part (non)sequel, part reinvention – inclines more toward the retina-scorching, eardrum-bashing territory of Michael Bay, the casting of pouty Transformers: Dark of the Moon star Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as The Splendid Angharad setting talismanic alarm bells ringing. Yet while Bay’s CG-driven oeuvre has always lacked weight and substance, there’s a crunchy physicality about Miller’s balletic visual aesthetic – a belief that actions really do speak louder than words. Envisaged at one point as an Akira-style anime, this graphic-novel-inflected chase movie (co-written with British graphic-novelist/designer Brendan McCarthy and veteran Grease Rat/dramaturge Nico Lathouris) eschews dialogue in favour of explosive demonstration, the versatile “Edge Arm” camera system – a swooping vehicle-mounted crane – providing a visual sword that cuts a defining swath through the narrative. Eye-catching Namib desert locales provide end-of-world backdrops, while layer-cake vehicle designs (cars bolted on to cars bolted on to trucks) turn everything into a mobile pile-up from the outset, with cheeky nods to Peter Weir’s influential The Cars that Ate Paris.

Amid the car-nage, Tom Hardy is a fleshy cog in an oily machine, his intense physicality perfectly in keeping with Miller’s meat-grinder milieu. While Mel Gibson always had a touch of madness in his eyes (more so in retrospect), Hardy lets his bulky body do the talking, his muscular movements recalling the taut choreography of his title role in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson. By contrast, Theron’s one-armed bandit seems to be channelling the spirit of Gibson’s deranged Apocalypto, an oil-smear across her forehead signalling both petrol-head and tribal-warrior, her mechanical hand adding just a touch of The Terminator. Meanwhile Nicholas Hoult is all but unrecognisable as Nux, the tumour-ridden foot soldier who wants to chrome-plate his teeth and suicide-bomb his way into Valhalla, a misguided martyr in a very contemporary unholy war.

If all this sounds like a reason to floor it to the nearest multiplex, then caution: there are obstacles in the road ahead. Putting the pedal to the metal for 90 minutes is one thing, but at two hours it’s more of a slog, battle-fatigue teetering on the edge of burn-out and even boredom. More problematically, for all its avowed feminist credentials Miller’s film can’t quite reconcile its horrors-of-patriarchy narrative with its exotic fashion-shoot depiction of “The Wives”, leaving its gender politics weirdly conflicted. But if you can work round such snarl-ups there’s plenty of mileage in this monster, which, significantly, was press-screened (and indeed shot) in 2D, with zero need for stereoscopic “enhancement”.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Mark Kermode, Observer film critic, for The Observer on Sunday 17th May 2015 09.00 Europe/London

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