Fury Road well worth taking

Fury Road well worth taking

THE NEW MAX: English actor Tom Hardy (you may recall him as Bane from The Dark Knight Rises) replaces Mel Gibson as the title character, Max Rockatansky, and this time the character is significantly more mad.

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Title: Mad Max: Fury Road
Rating: F5
Short review: A brilliant, exuberant and wickedly smart return to this well-loved franchise.

That Mad Max: Fury Road was going to be an adrenaline-rush vehicular monster mash of the first order looked to be fairly obvious from the eye-popping trailers invading theaters and the internet over the last several months.

That George Miller's long percolating return to the franchise that originally established him as an action director to be reckoned with would be so good, though, makes for the ultimate, gleeful surprise.

Quite a surprise given his most recent efforts include the Babe and Happy Feet films.

Miller follows the logic of his 1981 entry Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, crafting a film full of high-octane vehicle behemoths doing bone-crunching combat on dirt roads so red they put rural Oklahoma to shame.

If The Road Warrior was the pinnacle of the vehicular combat B movie archetype, Fury Road — with its suicidal dive-bombing lunatics, attackers on long truck-mounted stalks and goons willing to spit high octane fuel into carburetors to get an extra boost of speed — is the very sun around which that world revolves.

Fury Road takes the entire concept of the road movie very literally in that 95 percent of the film is an extended chase punctuated with amazing, visually exuberant warfare. The fights are en route, most of the dialogue is en route, most of the character development — save for one crucial scene for Max's character late in — is en route … it's quite literally a chase movie.

But this vehicle-driven monstrosity has more than just gasoline in the tank. Miller's characterizations are as brash and larger than life than ever — you've got a lead villain named Immortan Joe whose breathing apparatus is fashioned in the style of a skull's grin, after all — but they're all extremely well-written and believable given Miller's universe of near-cartoonish misanthropy.

First and foremost is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a former road warrior under the dictatorial Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) who, incensed at her warlord's designation of a number of women as property — "breeders" — rather than human beings, steals them away in a semi tanker trunk geared up for full-on warfare in hopes of reaching a green land she remembers from childhood stories. Fighting for the lives of these women and for personal redemption, a titanic amount of the film's success is directly due to this character and Theron's exquisite performance in the role.

Tom Hardy fills the shoulder pad-equipped jacket and leg brace worn by the now disgraced Mel Gibson in the series' three previous entries as a new interpretation of "Mad" Max Rockatansky for a new decade and generation. This new interpretation of the character will likely be the most controversial facet in this new film as far as original trilogy fans are concerned, and not entirely because there's a new face and voice in the suit.

Originally, the "Mad" in "Mad Max" was seemingly more representative of an emotional state. Initially a Punisher-esque figure who became a vengeful road warrior fighting post-apocalypse road gangs after one killed his wife and child, this new outing presents him as going literally insane from his years in the wastelands, suffering hallucinations and fugues, resorting to feeding on mutant lizards when not afraid that the little girl of his dreams and nightmares is stalking him in the waking world.

This evolution — combined with a different actor — leads to a very different, much more haunted character. Gone is Gibson's overly confident and handsome mug, replaced with a wild-eyed, paranoid wasteland survivor with a ferocious violent streak. Physically and psychologically, Hardy's interpretation is one of desperate survivalism approaching the verge of complete breakdown. Within that veneer lies a paladin in search of a quest only to find he still can't trust society — or himself in society — enough to stick with it.

This will turn some fan cranks the wrong way as it makes Max seem less a protagonist and more a reactant — and yet, it fits the series' general model. In all the previous films, Max has been, to some degree, a common man who happens to find himself immersed in very uncommon situations populated by far more vibrant personalities. What Miller dares to do in this entry that he didn't do in the others is give his hero a more debilitating weakness from the get-go and, while it makes the hero less epic, it succeeds at making him more human.

As for criticism solely surrounding the fact that it's not Mel Gibson anymore… well, it seems the world has moved on just fine with occasional new faces for James Bond, Batman, Superman, Doctor Who and even Bruce Banner in the recent spate of Marvel films. Things change. If it makes you feel better, remember Gibson has a history of hardcore antisemitism and get on with life.

Miller's themes and social commentary are just as loud and in your face as the vehicular combat as he pits Max and Furiosa against Joe's world, which slams viewers in the face with major representations of a number of today's social issues. Sure, Joe considers his breeder-wives nothing more than baby-creation machines to serve at his leisure, but he also populates the world with a cadre of women whose sole purpose is to spend their days hooked up to a human variation of bovine milking machines, producing milk for him and his family to gulp up at their leisure. Is it any wonder that the whiny little assholes in the "Mens' Rights Advocacy" groups have targeted this film for their vitriol?

There are little things here and there that will be picked on by people of various inclinations. The occasional digital effect that doesn't look perfect. The fact that the eponymous hero of the film barely speaks in the first half of the film. The film's in-your-face criticism of gender and religious issues.

Regardless, the overall product Miller and crew have produced is a staggering achievement that easily stands shoulder-to-shoulder with The Road Warrior before it and, in some ways, even surpasses it.