Thirty years after Max Rockatansky scurried off into the desert to hide from Tina Turner with a bunch of pipsqueaks in 1985′s Beyond Thunderdome, the cantankerous road warrior stomps back onto the big screen with a brand new bod — the broad shoulders of English actor Tom Hardy — to reclaim centre stage as cinema’s go-to guy for a world gone to hell in a petroleum-dowsed handbag.

Hardy’s hulking presence makes the casting of Mel Gibson in the originals feel comparatively as menacing as a snowflake. The character’s James Bond-like re-assignment, with a second actor inhabiting the same role, reflects the extent to which the leather-clad anti-hero has become more an emblem than an individual — less a person than a state of mind.

The first Mad Max, released in 1979, bent over backwards to show us the human at the heart of it. There were tender, romantic moments when the titular character lay in reeds with his wife, even trips to get ice cream with his infant son.

Such pleasantries would be unthinkable in Mad Max: Fury Road, which seems to have only hardened the resolve of director George Miller to deliver hard-boiled action freed from the sentimental stickiness of a moral point-of-view. The anarchic feel of it — the bedlam, squalor and jacked-up depravity of it all — is, in a sick sort of way, utterly refreshing in today’s culture of emotionally heavy-handed blockbusters.

Fury Road doesn’t have much in the way of a narrative: it is essentially one long car chase down vast arid stretches of the Namib Desert, where the film was shot after the original locations in Broken Hill NSW did something thoroughly un-Mad Max-like and started sprouting flowers. In Miller’s iconic post-apocalyptic universe, former highway patrolman Max (Hardy) escapes captivity and partners up with Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who is crossing the desert with a band of former captives known as the Five Wives.

In a delicious turn of casting, the lead bad guy chasing them — Immortan Joe, who looks like a cross between Darth Vader and Friar John — is played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, who was the villain Toecutter in the original.

There are heapings of batshit crazy weirdness piled up on Miller’s dystopian dinner table. Quentin Kenihan has a (topless) small role, Charlize Theron storms about with half an arm missing, a guitarist chained to a stage on top of a truck operates an existence entirely predicated on constant shredding, Angus Sampson is involved in a gnarly birth-gone-wrong scene and dirty ruffians literally drink mother’s milk.

This is the kind of madness three predecessors and a batch of pulse-pounding trailers have led us to expect; the big surprise is how concentrated the film is on a spatial level. That titular road is the centre of a more or less single setting film which unfolds like a car racing video game: narrowly, with a constant sense of motion.

Miller’s terrific carnage-strewn action scenes debunk once and for all the perception that great action is synonymous with fresh blood or young directors. With the right preparation and a cunning attention to detail even a mayhem-splattered opus such as Fury Road can feel like mature and precisely balanced art.

The pace is frenetic, a sonic-speed symphony of combustion at 24 strangled cats a second: loud, ferocious, ear-bleeding vehicular carnage whipped together with hell-for-leather momentum. This is bona fide dystopian road porn — a genre George Miller created, rigged and blew apart then created, rigged and blew apart again.

The Mad Max universe takes place in a world where the Planet of the Apes prophecy more or less came true, minus simian overlords. To paraphrase Charlton Heston, we blew it: the battle against climate change has been lost, commercial entities, i.e. energy companies, sped up the disintegration of society, rock music literally creates flames that puncture what’s left of the ozone layer and, perhaps most alarming of all, ’80s fashion returned with a vengeance — a BDSM vengeance, no less, with a wardrobe of freak-kink no other sci-fi franchise has dared to match.

How do you wrap a peaches-and-cream ending around this stuff? How do you tie it together with Hollywood string? You don’t — at least George Miller doesn’t — and the bleakness of his vision feels singular and liberating. Fury Road is the ultimate anti-Hollywood blockbuster, the one that shows 99% of its mega-budget predecessors were sissies: large and vacuous commercials for popcorn and soft drinks.

As blockbuster movie mentality gravitated to the centre, away from its origins in genre filmmaking (the first modern blockbuster was Steven Spielberg’s Jaws), an idea became engrained that financially viable mega-budget productions should be first and foremost concerned with appealing to the widest number of people. This led a culture derided as “The Temple of Dumb” back in the ’80s. The critics, inspired by the second Indiana Jones movie to coin that phrase, could never have comprehended the shit storm of super-sized goop that was in the mail.

Mad Max doesn’t so much buck the trend of happy-go-lucky blockbuster filmmaking as collect all the niceties — men and women fall in love, good guys always win, yada yada — and detonate them. Fury Road is wickedly visceral, a monster art movie that ought to remind Hollywood of the power a striking artistic vision has not just to turn heads but to bring audiences.

Miller’s intensely choreographed graphic novel style (my kingdom for a book of the storyboards) won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, but the idea that we should be drinking out of the same glass was never a very appealing one.

*This article was originally published at Daily Review

Peter Fray

Get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for $12.

Without subscribers, Crikey can’t do what it does. Fortunately, our support base is growing.

Every day, Crikey aims to bring new and challenging insights into politics, business, national affairs, media and society. We lift up the rocks that other news media largely ignore. Without your support, more of those rocks – and the secrets beneath them — will remain lodged in the dirt.

Join today and get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12.


Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey