Mad Max: Fury Road - Stunts aplenty but plot is not great
The road warrior is back. But look beyond the stunning settings and cool car chases, and the script is utter drivel, says Andrew Johnston
If star ratings were awarded for production design, there wouldn't be enough space on this page for my glowing review of Mad Max: Fury Road. The belated fourth big-screen entry in George Miller's post-apocalyptic action franchise is the last word in ingenious vehicles, wonderfully weird make-up, splendidly demented costumes and stunning desert vistas.
Alas, movie critics also have to take into consideration plot and characterisation, and in these areas, Mad Max 4 crashes and burns.
Viewers are likely to spend a lot of the film wondering if they've missed the first half hour. It's incoherence taken to epic levels. Series creator Miller assumes deep audience knowledge of his world, despite the previous episode being released to cinemas in 1985 - at least a decade before many in the presumed target demographic were born.
It's not just difficult to care about what's happening in Mad Max: Fury Road - for much of the running time, it's impossible to even know.
The story, such as it is, finds futuristic ex-policeman (as we are told in a seemingly tacked-on opening voiceover) "Mad" Max Rockatansky attempting to stay one step ahead of a population of inbred savages, as he survives day-to-day in an immense wasteland (Namibia's Namib Desert doubling for the Australian Outback). Teaming up with Charlize Theron's treacherous Imperator Furiosa, who has her own reasons for fleeing her depraved regime, the pair embark on two hours of road-based madness and fast-moving fight scenes.
Meanwhile, Hugh Keays-Byrne - who played the main bad guy in Miller's 1979 original - is recast as Immortan Joe, a grotesque, fascistic overlord whose home life has to be seen to be believed.
Miller stages several spectacular chase sequences - in fact, the whole film is essentially a spectacular chase sequence - but the likes of the Fast and Furious series have raised the bar so high on vehicular stunt work that not even Fury Road's elaborate set-ups can come near. What would have been thrilling in the late 1980s - when this project was first mooted - feels oddly dated today.
Hardy never gives a poor performance, and that doesn't change here, mainly because he barely gives a performance at all. The Dark Knight Rises and Bronson star is principally called upon to furrow his brow in endless close-ups, whilst occasionally grunting a line of dialogue in an accent that hovers between Bane and Mel Gibson. Elsewhere, he's treated like a living cartoon, being dunked in water, flung from cars and hooked up to a makeshift blood transfusion service.
Strangely, though, Hardy's titular antihero delegates much of the driving to Imperator Furiosa. As magnificently named as Theron's character is, not having Mad Max behind the wheel in a Mad Max movie would be like JJ Abrams locking Hans Solo out of the Millennium Falcon in the upcoming Star Wars reboot.
Miller directs with gusto, clearly relishing the opportunity to helm action again after spending decades on kids' fare like Babe and Happy Feet. But without a decent story to hang the gonzo visuals on, it's all just so much video game footage.
That Hardy is signed up for a further four Mad Max flicks is as exhausting a prospect for cinemagoers as it will undoubtedly be for him.