This doesn't feel like a film that exists. How is George Miller's bonkers, exhausting, no-future smash-'em-up Mad Max: Fury Road not one of those almost-was boondoggles mourned and dreamed of by fans, a revered director's impossible vision that, thanks to the unstout hearts of studio bean counters, never actually vaulted from storyboard to screen?
But Fury Road somehow is. In the era of greenscreened blockbusters, we have an R-rated studio release on which a 70-year-old director blew hundreds of millions of dollars crashing real cars into one another in Namibia. You know the charge that Furious 7 feels like what you would get if you asked a Hot Wheel-loving 10-year-old to work out the beats of a screenplay? Fury Road is what the kid might dream up at 14, stoned at the motocross, keyed up on Mountain Dew and old Conan comics, except instead of writing a script, he's lighting those Hot Wheels on fire and chucking them at your face. He's also, touchingly, a feminist and eager for you to know it. Plus he's tireless, touched with some genius, and you would not believe just how many of those cars he has to throw.
Here is a movie whose lead (Tom Hardy), 15 minutes in, is lashed to the hood of a hopped-up, flame-flatulent Chevy like he's the figurehead maiden on the prow of some 16th-century ship. A villain — one of the film's many bald, scarred-over, mud-caked, cancer-ridden, raccoon-eyed albinos — has chained Hardy's Mad Max there as a fuel source. Turns out, in Miller's wasteland, the bad guys need to siphon off the blood of the rest of us, especially while rocketing across the flatlands in a convoy that looks like GWAR's remake of Cannonball Run.
Hardy just hangs on the hood through the first of many relentless, terrifying, time-stopping road wars. Max has an IV jacked into him, feeding the driver, an action-film innovation that had me squirming. The crashes and 'splosions and impalings trigger some pleasure in me, but nothing like fear. But the thought of being whipped around by a crazed driver while donating plasma? For the movie's first third, my veins shriveled up as tight as angel-hair pasta.
Like the Mad Max films from three decades ago, Fury Road's script is stripped down to rage and momentum. Neither Hardy nor Charlize Theron speaks much as they rumble across the desert, and what we know of their characters comes from observed detail: the way he's happy to abandon Theron and the young women she has saved to the warlord pursuing them, or the way she hides a gun in every cranny of the cab of her rig, and then a knife too, in the stick of her stick shift — Fury Road spits in the eye of automatic transmissions. His motivation, at first, is mere survival; it richens, eventually, to survival and hoping to get a barbed death-mask off his face. (Hardy probably tapped into his experience on the set of The Dark Knight Rises.)
Hers is more complex, so the movie has her say it out loud: "Redemption." Then it's back to the automotive combat, a two-hour parade/destruction derby of rust buckets so viciously spiked, you could do a brisk business selling audiences tetanus shots after the movie.
Theron is every bit the swaggering tough Hardy is. The women she's rescued are the supermodel wives of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a local ginger god-king in a bucktoothed gas mask. The brides prove capable road warriors themselves, but they're later outclassed by a ladies-only tribe of sexagenarian ass-stompers on motorbikes. Like Max and Nux, an albino slave of that god-king (played by Nicholas Hoult), they're survivors trying to escape the exploitative logic of Miller's wasteland, which will harvest a commodity from anyone powerless: Max's blood, Nux's strength, the wives' fertility, and the breast milk of the women Immortan Joe has imprisoned in his dairy. Miller and his screenwriters (Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris) have the good taste not to assign the heroines any of-our-culture girl-power sass — early on, when Theron's Furiosa fights Max to a draw, she doesn't shout, "You're going down, bitch!"
The story is streamlined, but the action isn't. At one point, Miller has four convoys pursuing Theron's rig, and his cameras seem to be fighting to keep up with the dozens of cars onscreen at any moment. Hollywood action today is usually a stuttering blur of CGI bone-crushing where you have to take the movie's word for it that something worth your awe has happened. Miller's car-versus-car dustups are something different altogether: Real cars, practical stunt work, and the return of the thrill of believing what you're seeing — and wondering how they pulled it off, especially as those albino warriors swoop up and down the caravans on harpoons and chains and great bending flagpoles. The feeling here is of real events Miller and his team happened to be covering, as if the world's best-equipped news van were catching impossible vehicular mayhem en route to Burning Man.
The design is perhaps more memorable than the stunt work. The junk-shop convoy built for the film, those armadilloed muscle cars and Bigfoot-wheeled Caddies, is ingenious and hilarious, like what Ed Roth might have come up with if he'd turned pirate. As the action ground on, wearing me down, the cars themselves continually dazzled me with their invention: One truck is all amplifiers, pyro blasts, a timpani drum corps, and a shredding guitar player, sort of like Ozzfest's entry in the Rose Parade.
Still, for all the ways the movie feels singular and impossible, like something the studio suits couldn't possibly have signed off on, Fury Road also feels entirely of its era. I admire its craft and cruel wit and its willingness to trust us to work out the particulars of its world, but it lulled me into that familiar state of summertime action fatigue, of being worn down by the violence rather than geared up, of waiting the mayhem out rather than tracking it. It's an end-of-the-world thriller that can bum you out by suggesting the death of our own film culture. About 90 minutes in, as spiked-over jalopies caromed again and again into Theron's big rig, my dazzlement sank into something like horror: What if the wasteland rage of Fury Road is the only feeling studio movies of the future bother to stir in us? We're strapped to the hood, and who knows what's being siphoned from us?