The second Mad Max (a.k.a. The Road Warrior) was a masterpiece of cinema, mind-blowingly good. The third (Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) was... well, just sort of underpowered and odd.
So I awaited this 21st Century reboot of the franchise with trepidation. But, my word, it is just wonderful. What a fantastic film. It almost eclipses The Road Warrior.
I say almost because, although Fury Road outclasses the best of the earlier Mad Max movies in its action sequences, visual style, breathtaking design, and development of secondary characters, it does rather short-change us on the characterisation of Max himself.
Poor Tom Hardy (replacing the now somewhat-too-deliciously-mature Mel Gibson in the role) spends half the movie with a metal gag on his mouth.
But it is entirely misleading of me to start by grousing. I loved this film and recommend it to you in the most emphatic terms.
It follows the other movies in presenting a post-apocalypse scenario where cars and fuel (gasoline is pronounced "guzzle-leen" in a cuttingly apt Freudian pun) rule in the despoiled and exhausted world.
No sooner has the movie started than Max is captured, his beloved car taken from him, and he's made a slave by the evil and grossly deformed Immortan (sic) Joe (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne). Actually, I say "slave", in fact they want Max for his blood; Max is a universal donor. A nice touch by writer-director George Miller, who used to be a doctor.
Joe rules a kingdom of brainwashed drones — the Lost Boys — most of whom are dying of radiation poisoning ("Half Lifes"). They have a warrior culture where they believe they go to Valhalla if they die, so they willingly throw their lives away for Joe. The excellent British actor Nicholas Hoult plays one of these doomed warriors, Nux.
All is not well in Joe's empire, though. His lieutenant Imperator Furiosa (played by the gorgeous Charlize Theron — never better) is brewing mutiny. She escapes in one hell of a truck with Joe's harem — his breeding stock of lovely wives.
Cue a furious chase in which Nux is determined to win his lord's approval by getting them back. He is dying, so he takes Max with him, strapped to his vehicle as a living blood bag, connected to Nux with a transfusion line.
(There's a cherishable moment when Max sees his stolen car in the chase pack. "First my blood, now my car," he grumbles. "What next?")
The movie has to be seen to be believed. Shot in the deserts of Namibia it features the most amazing convoy of chase vehicles (including modified vintage hot rods) ever captured on film.
This is where Brendan McCarthy comes in. A comic-art genius whose work entranced me when he was drawing for 2000 AD, McCarthy soon moved into film design. On Fury Road, his contribution was so crucial he was promoted to co-screenwriter along with Miller and NIck Lathouris (who was an actor in the first Max movie). I see McCarthy's handiwork particularly in the vintage hot rods, and Joe's macabre visage.
This film is sort of colour coded — red for the desert chase and a hellish lightning-shattered sandstorm ("What a lovely day!" exclaims the awe-struck, death-intoxicated Nux). Blue for an evocative extended night sequence.
And a journey through a polluted, swampy wasteland with strange figures on stilts is reminiscent of Terry Gilliam at his best. Not to mention Hieronymus Bosch.
The whole thing is a visual knockout and breathtaking. Miller's kinetic mastery of the action film puts him high in the pantheon of great film makers. Tom Hardy, when he is finally freed to speak, turns in a fine performance.
But special mention must go to the gang of old lady bikers who turn up, led by the Keeper of the Seeds (Melissa Jaffer). They're just wonderful (and they apparently did their own stunts).
I'm getting goose bumps just writing about this movie. I saw it three times and wish I'd seen it more.
Not to be missed.
(Image credits: Delightfully rich pickings for posters at Imp Awards.)