Some movies distract and entertain you; others leave you bored or strained. A few bedazzle, or puzzle us with their flaws, but many more start to fade the moment you leave the theater. What's truly rare is a cinematic experience that is utterly transporting, that captivates you so completely the guy sitting in the seat next to you could have a heart attack and you might not notice.
"Mad Max: Fury Road" is one such film. People walked out of our screening in a daze; they were winded and tired. It's like finishing a marathon: the first thing you do is catch your breath.
Watching this sequel/reboot to the storied apocalyptic death race series, the first from writer/director George Miller in 30 years, is such an assault on the senses it will leave you battered.
It's essentially one two-hour-long chase, with former cop Max Rockatansky unwillingly caught in the middle. It's an orgy of blood and fire, horsepower and hand-to-hand combat, a nightmare pastiche of humanity's last ride played out on the scorched Australian desert. (Actually, Namibia.)
The screenplay by Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris paints a dense, detailed world that we only get tiny glimpses of at any given time. We experience characters and make up elaborate backstories to go with them. This is the sort of movie you have to see several times to completely rap your brain around.
Max is, of course, played by Tom Hardy, the first time Mel Gibson hasn't occupied the role, having gotten too old and rant-y. Hardy fashions his version of the character closer to the vest, motivated less by rage at a world that has robbed him of everything so much as haunted by those he failed to save.
His Max is mad, but mostly at himself.
When we first see him he's still riding the sun-beaten pan in his iconic black police V-8 Interceptor, searching for gas, food and a moment of respite from roving bands of scavengers. But that lasts just a few minutes, as he is captured by the War Boys of Immortan Joe, a local warlord who controls the flow of water from his mountaintop citadel. Max is turned into a "blood bag," a source of clean blood and organs for Joe's soldiers.
Immortan Joe is played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, who also was the main villain in the original "Mad Max." He's a terrifying vision, a Darth Vader-esque figure who's viewed as a god by his stable of chalk-white War Boys, but he's actually a decrepit old man held upright by his armor and breathing mask, which is fashioned into a fearsome death's head grin of fangs.
Joe sends regular runs to nearby Gastown to trade for fuel, heavily armed convoys centered around a war rig piloted by one of his chief lieutenants, called Imperators. Furiosa is one such, a fearsome woman with a prosthetic arm played by Charlize Theron. But Furiosa has betrayed Immortan Joe by stealing his bevy of "wives," actually sex slaves who are used to breed his twisted sons.
Max gets brought along for the pursuit by Nux (Nicholas Hoult), one of the War Boys, who live very short lives due to their mutations, reliance on rage-inducing drugs and dreams of entering Valhalla with Joe's blessing. Through a series of circumstances, Max throws in with Furiosa and her distressed damsels. They voyage toward a "green place" in the east where they can live free; but as we know from these sorts of tales, apocalypses have few oases.
The car chases and combat scenes are simply breathtaking. Miller attained much of them using old-fashioned stunts and practical effects, augmented by computer generated imagery. We see cars reduced to bits of junks even as they're still hurtling forward, with bodies flying off this way and that. Furiosa proves herself Max's equal -- at least -- in survival skills and sheer badassery.
The film is a technical marvel, with vivid cinematography by John Seale, crisp editing from Margaret Sixel and a thrumming heavy metal musical score by Junkie XL.
I loved how Miller uses imagery and themes from the three previous Mad Max movies and weaves them into a new synthesis that feels organic and evolutionary.
For instance, the War Boys, with their skull-like paint, seem an offshoot of Scrooloose, the odd boy among the lost children from "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome." And Max is propped up on the front of a car like the hostages in "The Road Warrior." The vehicles are all bastardized combinations of salvaged pieces, such as Immortan Joe's death machine, which is two 1959 Cadillacs welded on top of each other.
"Mad Max: Fury Road" is the rare remake that matches its predecessors in audacity and originality. This is what movies are made for.