It seems the only people who make them like they used to are the ones that made the originals. George Miller is unique amongst that cohort of young directors that made an impression in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s; the only one to successfully carry all that early energy, dynamism and sadism into his dotage. He’s fared better than any other member of the Twilight Zone Movie quartet, the era’s young bucks. He didn’t murder Vic Morrow and a couple of kids, didn’t have Joe Dante’s ‘90s career, and hasn’t botched a reprise of his signature franchise like old pal Steven Spielberg.
Watching the new Mad Max one’s struck by how fresh it is. It may be a movie about nothing, the characters exploitation broad strokes designed to facilitate mood and action, but it’s got style – enough style to fill the void and kill its shortcomings. If Miller has a loving wife and batch of grandchildren he’s been shrewd enough not to let them soften him up. When Hugh Keays-Byrne’s Immortan Joe takes greedy gulps from a bottle of freshly pumped breast milk, or Tom Hardy’s Rockatansky cries foul, tied to the front of a car with a gardening tool strapped to his face, you can imagine Grandpa George showing the grandkids a storyboard, gleefully narrating the moment a woman with one arm and a 1979 haircut beats a man, to be captured from ten different angles. Grandma Miller shakes her head and laughs, ready to serve up her famous crumble: rhubarb and balls.
Mad Max: Fury Road only adds to the franchise in the sense that it’s a grander feat of orchestration – more extras, more vehicles, longer chases; sound and fury signifying Miller’s illustrious past-life in the Australian outback. Namibia’s even drier – your lips crack just watching this thing, Miller’s cinematographer John Seale has achieved the Nth degree of rust, and amongst it all – somewhere in the interstice between stunt work and pyrotechnics, good ol’ special effects – you find the same near-mute loner you once knew, a man just holding on. Tom Hardy’s Max is a little more exasperated than Mel Gibson’s, and apparently better travelled as his infrequent dialogue is presented in different accents, but that’s about it. This version of the character isn’t someone you can get to know. He’s not even the focus of his own movie.
That honour belongs to Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, the woman with the sole claim to the plot. She’s puts the movie into gear by stealing a truck load of breeders from under the nose of Keays-Bryne’s warlord and fleeing with them in search of the promised verdant land of her birth. The movie steals back the Waterworld plot that Waterworld stole from it. Miller it seems is more interested in Furiosa than Max or his supporting cast, which is understandable as it includes Nicholas Hoult. He gives her more lines, a solid backstory and some motivation to keep the film going. Hardy, by contrast, is just a reluctant spectator minded to help by the bedevilling voices in his head. Miller was right not to rehash his origin story (the defining moment is reprised in a mental flashback), but he might have given Max a goal of his own. Perhaps in a movie like this it’s enough to be a passenger but it’s not enough to justify marquee billing.
Mad Max is back then, with the brio and barnstorming setpieces intact. Sure, nostalgia plays its part, but then – like a group stuck in the Namibian desert without water – the audience has been thirsty for this old vitality for some time. The movie’s proudly unsanitised – it’s a glorious freakshow, a big budget exploitation blowout, that does it if it can do it and only lets the computer animators loose when it can’t. If Grandpa George’s got enough juice for another it’ll be welcome but next time, having shown he’s still the king of the automotive western, he’ll need to add shade to his characters, lest his considerable style break the bonds of the movie screen and spill out into the world, flattening the audience.