Movie review: Charlize Theron is an action hero for a new era in Mad Max: Fury Road | Arts

Movie review: Charlize Theron is an action hero for a new era in Mad Max: Fury Road

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Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa, a new action hero for a new Mad Max movie. - PHOTO BY JASIN BOLAND
  • photo by Jasin Boland
  • Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa, a new action hero for a new Mad Max movie.
Mad Max: Fury Road
★★★★
Opening Friday

In Greek mythology, the Furies were goddesses of justice and vengeance, particularly for crimes against the natural order. Mad Max: Fury Road takes cues from this feminist allegory while delivering—in spades—the sheer havoc the title also suggests.

Director George Miller paints an immersive post-apocalyptic epoch where societal structure has been upended, and its most susceptible members—mainly women and children—are natural resources. Chalk-white “War Boys” compose the indoctrinated army of King Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the grotesque tyrant of the Citadel, one of the few remaining human strongholds in a barren desert wasteland.

Joe rations gas and water to the needy masses. Meanwhile, he harbors a harem called the Five Wives—slaves forced to bear his offspring, which are nourished by milk forcibly farmed from an assembly line of women. These are human beings distilled to the most basic functions of servitude, and it’s a cruel reality that Furiosa (Charlize Theron, terrific), Joe’s (literal) right-hand woman, eventually cannot tolerate.

In a refueling convoy to Gastown, Furiosa suddenly veers her tractor-trailer War Rig off course, onto Fury Road. Her secret cargo are the breeders, who she intends to ferry to safety in the mystical “green place," Furiosa’s ancestral motherland. An irate Joe and his horde of henchmen give chase, with a captive Max (Tom Hardy, taking the iconic title role from Mel Gibson) strapped as a hood ornament to one of the pursuing vehicles. Once he escapes, Max, Furiosa and the freedom-fighting Five Wives must overcome their distrust for the sake of mutual survival.

Fury Road is part superhero flick, part Western. Joe’s marauding cavalry charges into battle led not by a bugle call, but by a flame-throwing guitar brandished by a masked musician who hangs like a marionette aboard a mobile stage. Max is a monosyllabic man-with-no-name until the last act, his taciturn manner hiding the scars of abuse and survivor’s guilt from the family he couldn’t protect. Furiosa falls squarely in the lineage of action heroines Ellen Ripley and Sarah Conner. Indeed, Miller’s most subversive feat is making the female lead in a Mad Max movie the most compelling champion, while Max is a subdued cipher.

The movie never finds the narrative high-gear that marks the difference between simply spectacular and truly transcendent action films. “All this for a family squabble,” Joe’s lieutenant quips, with unintended accuracy. This is mostly a rock opera, divided by acts rather than scenes—a symphony in which relentless action and visual intensity build to a kinetic crescendo. Accompanied by the power chords of Junkie XL’s incessant score, the mayhem is an intoxicating, phantasmagoric fever dream of computer effects and untethered camerawork, mixed with real pyrotechnics and old-fashioned stunts that span the spectrum from Buster Keaton to Bullitt.

It’s also the 70-year-old Miller’s balls-out response after trying to return Mad Max to the screen since 1985, and after the frustration of his infamously scrapped Justice League project (Keays-Byrne was cast as Martian Manhunter, and Megan Gale, who was to play Wonder Woman, makes an appearance as Furiosa's kinswoman). It can’t be a coincidence that Furiosa shares elements of Wonder Woman’s Amazonian origin story, or that the iron facemask Hardy wears in the first half of the film evokes his Bane mask in The Dark Knight Rises.

Full of firefights, exploding jalopies, flying dirt bikes, rock slides and digital sandstorms, Fury Road is the antidote to the summer movie same-old. Bolstered by a sufficient sum of provocation and even poignancy, it’s a gritty, wild ride that gives equitable bang for your buck.

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