By GAETANA CALDWELL-SMITH
I liked “Mad Max Fury Road” much more than I thought I would. Critics seemed to focus on only the action, of which there was scads—relentless, spectacular, and loud. Cirque du Soleil gone gritty: Men clinging to the tops of swaying poles attached to souped-up speeding cars while blasting with automatic weapons.
However, throughout, messages are evident concerning the exploitation of women and children and climate change. There’s no water in this world of the near future except for that which is controlled by the ruling entity—a warlord—white-haired, masked Immortan Joe (played with menacing evil by Hugh Keays-Byrne, who relishes every move).
Joe runs the Citadel and has enslaved the people. He demands worship. Followers of his ideology believe that when they die for him, they will be martyrs.
One of his minions, Nux, played by Nicholas Hoult, is selected as a favorite by being “chromed,” i.e., mouth sprayed with a silver liquid or powder. He later defects and signs on with Max (Tom Ford) and Imperator Furiosa (a kick-ass Charlize Theron).
Furiosa’s green-blue eyes appear capable of penetrating an armored truck. She wears a prosthetic left arm and hand; pants, boots, tank top, and hair cropped to her skull. Her war paint? Axle grease smeared across her forehead. Beautiful!
The Citadel consists of mountainous red rock, on top of which plant life grows, the only green for hundreds of miles. Max (the same character from the three original films) is seen in an opening shot eating a two-headed lizard he’d stomped on. After being captured for trespassing, Max is used as a blood bank for Nux.
There’s little if any exposition in this film, yet it is cohesive and linear, and satisfies many levels of expectations both visceral and intellectual and comes to a believable conclusion. One need not see the preceding Mad Max films; Fury Road stands on its own.
We learn that Imperator Furiosa is rescuing Joe’s breeder slaves, flimsily-dressed women from Joe’s harem (one of whom is pregnant) in the body of an empty oil tanker, which she’s hooked up to her heavily armored vehicle. Her destination is a home she hasn’t seen for over a decade, which she recalls as being green, with waterfalls.
There’s an early scene of thousands of ragged, filthy, desiccated men, women, and children swarming at the foot of a cliff, holding up containers. Joe appears, high above; he shouts an order to open the sluices. His slaves (hairless and startlingly white men and children) turn massive wooden gear wheels by literally walking on the circumference. The people trample one another to catch water as it gushes from huge pipes in the cliff face, nearly sweeping them away. Suddenly, the water stops. People go mad.
Aging and dying, Joe wears a suit of armor made of Plexigas you can see through but don’t want to—as Lenny Bruce once observed about nylon dresses—and a metal-framed grotesque half-mask over the lower part of his face. A bellows is attached to the back of the armor, pumping air, so he can breathe.
Cinematographer John Seale shot some gorgeous scenes to relieve the gruesomeness and horror of others, as well as some that are eerily, hauntingly, beautiful: e.g., when Furiosa’s rig approaches a muddy swamp, shadowy, ragged, cloaked figures appear on stilts, slowly crossing the expanse.
As she nears her goal, dirt-bikers—older women (surprise!), the Vuvalinis—leap down immense sand dunes and stop her (the film was made in the Namibian desert in Africa). They turn out to be from Furiosa’s former home and remember her as a child.
There’s bad news, though—Furiosa had been traveling in the wrong direction. The dash back the way they came is even more harrowing, with Joe and his Chrome buddies once more on their tail. Joe’s sex slaves evolve into fighters as well. Furiosa, near death and having lost her prosthetic arm and hand, but not her grit, prevails, with Max’s help. The folded length of plastic tubing on his shoulder came in handy after all.
In a blockbuster summer movie season, rife with costumed, comic-book, male superheroes, Imperator Furiosa is a woman warrior not unlike Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games” or Shailene Woodley in “Divergent.” There are no heroes here, only liberators. “Mad Max Fury Road” is, as The New Yorker’s A. O Scott wrote, “about revolution.”