I would never see a film such as “Mad Max: Fury Road,” but was persuaded by its ratings: 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, 89% on Metacritic, and 8.7 user rating on IMDB.com. These useful guides have rarely misled me but in this case must wonder how so many good critics could be so wrong.
Perhaps they were being nice to leading lady, Charlize Theron, who manages to retain her dignity in spite of being stuck with a leaden Tom Hardy, who needs to suck in his neck during profile shots, and about four pages of sophomoric dialogue.
Reams of dialogue pages, of course, are not necessary to make a good movie, but given the narrative mess and visual pandemonium of director George Miller’s return to “Mad Max” after 30 years, one hopes for an Anthony Hopkins, Michael Caine, or James Earl Jones to suddenly walk out of cave and say something intelligent.
The viewer, presumably, is supposed to get chill bumps when “Max” finally reveals his name to the badly wounded Imperator Furiosa (Theron), but by then I was grateful that Hardy had kept his mouth shut. Has there been worse performance by a lead actor in a major motion picture recently? I counted two, maybe three expressions on Hardy’s face — fear, anger, and one insipid smile at the pre-Raphaelite nymphets he is helping to save from further impregnation by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne).
Having lost his bevy of underage sex slaves, Immortan Joe leads his small army of reconstituted motor vehicles out of the “Citiadel” into the desert to reclaim them, especially the one about to give birth. Imperator Furiosa, who was herself stolen as a child and brought to the Citadel, leaves him note to the effect that the children will not be grow up to be like Papa.
After a few scenes at home we are off into the desert for rest of the movie which Miller, in stark contrast to David Lean, succeeds in making it appear like a vast sandbox, except for the few scenes allowing the distinguished Theron to look magical against its vast background.
Remembering the importance of pipes and drums to a marching army, Immortan Joe takes along a guitar player whose large — very large — guitar ejaculates fire. Though I experienced the ’60s as a teenager, I never embraced the electric guitar as an awe-inspiring, or desire inducing, totem.
The guitar’s presence in the film did, however, remind me how pop conceits can win over even an old curmudgeon like me when deftly employed by romanticists like Ken Russell (“Tommy,” 1975) or Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet,” 1996).
Like all contemporary action films, this new “Mad Max” relies heavily on CGI, which challenges the writers and director to come up with new and unusual ways for supporting characters to die, vehicles to be destroyed, and for leading characters to survive anything that’s thrown or shot at them. This escalating choreography of violence of the CGI action genre, to my eyes, has become exhausted in a way that has yet to overtake other genres, for example, the Samurai film or the Western.
I’ve watched all 25 films in Criterion’s Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman series, never being less than charmed by the various ways Zatoichi vanquishes his often multitudinous rivals. Westerns, too, continue to be made without the good guy/bad guy choreography growing stale — “3:10 to Yuma” (2007), “Appaloosa,” 2008. “True Grit” (2010), “Meek’s Cutoff” (2010).
I suppose its post-apocalytic premise is supposed to bestow meaning on the entire mess of “Mad Max: Fury Road.” This deserves mentioning because before being allowed to leave the theater, the audience is presented with a black screen containing a kind of benediction, a big thought to take away about “finding home.” The postscript bookends with Max’s voice-over at the film’s beginning, “As the world fell, each of us in our own way were broken.” The audience is expected to lap up this faux spirituality because we’ve presumably spent several hours in deep empathetic connection to the literally broken Imperator Furiosa — she’s missing part of one arm — who is seeking the “green place” where she was born.
When she finds the “green place” was the section of oily sand she already drove through, the viewer naturally is supposed to have hateful thoughts about capitalism, corporations, and “trickle-down economics,” all of which combined to destroy the planet.
My thoughts went elsewhere, such as what else could I have been doing with my time? I certainly won’t be going to the just-released Tomorrowland, another post-apocalyptic message movie, which the critics thankfully have warned us against.
The avoidance of bad movies, after all, is half of a film critic’s job. Why they joined in a chorus of praise for this regurgitated “Mad Max” will always be a mystery to me.