Carrying three iconic predecessors and cross-generational expectations on its back certainly doesn't make it easy for the fourth entry in the "Mad Max" series. When the movie doesn't exactly open with a bang, for example, one's inclined to immediately assume the worst and declare it a disappointment. That the film manages to ride against such odds and eventually overcome them, blowing the most skeptical of minds in the process, is thus a particular testament to the brilliance and tenacity of the talents involved.
Using ominous voice-over to recount dire-sounding background information over grim stock footage of doomsday scenarios, the trademark post-apocalyptic tone is re-established within minutes. But while the sandy look and spontaneous outbreak of car chases also remind one of the 1980s classics, there's a smoothed-out quality to these first scenes that betrays a far less gritty core, an impression reinforced by the choice to comically speed up parts of the sequences. This perceived "softness" continues as the evil warlord is introduced and, despite the grandeur of his hellish kingdom, fails to jack up the excitement level beyond that of bemused admiration. To be fair, every aspect of the film's visual design until this point is delectably savage. Cages, chains and other unseemly contraptions celebrate a wanton decadence while disability and deformity of all kinds get rampantly fetishized. But the fact remains that, when the aesthetics of the macabre and the orchestration of outlandish stunts have been so famously revolutionized by your own previous incarnations, it's hard to clear the "never-seen-this-before" hurdle.
That changes as the film races forward and just keeps getting bigger, bolder, badder.
The skimpy plot line of a group of imprisoned women running away from their tyrannical captor along with fellow escapee Max (Tom Hardy) gains momentum and emotional heft through a desperate, single-minded drive. Stylistically, the prolonged fight for survival also rises to astounding heights. Envisioned by the master of carnage that's George Miller, the deadly, ever-escalating hunt-and-flight features colors, compositions and choreography so violently, breathtakingly beautiful, they threaten to burn right through the celluloid. The last 30 minutes of the film, during which murderous rage and acrobatic acts meet to jaw-dropping results, are not only insane in conception and impeccable in execution, they reach that rarefied place of unimaginable madness to instantly dwarf all tentpole actioners in recent memory.
Hardy does a fine job taking over from Mel Gibson. His voice work is especially remarkable, informing the audience of someone so unused to trust and self-expression as to struggle with the very act of speaking. Charlize Theron gives an award-worthy performance as rebel leader Furiosa. Broken, steeled, physically and psychologically strained to the extreme, it's a transformation that feels etched in flesh. When she lets out a gut-wrenching cry of anguish or looks straight into the camera with half of her soul missing, the pain and emptiness are palpable and deeply unsettling.
Patiently, steadily building to a high-flying, death-defying climax that may well have re-invented the game, "Mad Max: Fury Road" is a spectacle, a visceral experience, an urgent reminder of how cinema could and still can evoke such awe, such a pure, near-religious sense of wonder.
Mad Max: Fury Road | Directed by George Miller with Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult. Starts May 14