Friday, May 22, 2015

Review - Mad Max: Fury Road

It's a mad, mad, mad, mad world. Max is just living in it. Well, existing in it.
By his own admission, survival is the one instinct that he – the last sane man in a world gone crazy – has been reduced to as he wanders through the post-
apocalyptic Wasteland in Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth in a film series that hasn't revved its engines since 1985.

The real madman is producer-writer-director George Miller. Mad for deciding to pull his long dormant road warrior out of retirement 30 years beyond Thunderdome; Mad for conceiving the sort of world that heretofore could only have existed in a truck-driving anarchist's worst acid trips; And finally, mad for pulling it off with the sheer mind-shredding gusto that filmmakers half his age (he recently turned 70) consistently struggle to inject into modern action movies.

Best not to stand up after seeing this one. It'll melt your bones from the inside.
Those unfamiliar with the original Mad Max trilogy need not dismay. Those films had little in the way connectivity, treating their eponymous anti-hero more as a figure of legend than as a continually developing character. Besides, Miller tells you everything you need to know about the franchise within the first five minutes of Fury Road:

Nuclear armageddon has rendered the planet a balding desert – the sands of Namibia standing in here for the outback of Miller's native Australia – where warring tribes do vehicular battle over water and gas, the only commodities of value. Max (Tom Hardy stepping into Mel Gibson's leg brace and one-sleeved leather jacket) sides himself with no tribe, instead roaming the abyss alone, evading marauders and fleeing the ghosts (spirit guides, perhaps?) of innocents he's failed to protect.

Yet trouble always has a way of finding Max, who is captured at the outset by the cultist war boys of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a fearsome czar who lords over the masses of his colony with iron-jawed authority. Joe sends out a war party led by big-rig driver Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) to bring back supplies. Unbeknownst to him, she's smuggling a valuable cargo.
It doesn't take long for Furiosa to be found out. In a storm of fury, Immortan Joe hits the road (a 'fury road', if you will) with his convoy of death machines in tow, and the chase is on! Max is just a prisoner reluctantly along for the ride, until circumstance forces him into an uneasy alliance with the renegade Imperator, who ends up pulling far more than her own weight in this unlikely heroic partnership. Perhaps a more appropriate subtitle for the picture would have been The Fast and the Furiosa.

Though what amounts to a 2-hour car chase may not exactly be high on concept, the simplicity of its narrative belies what is actually an exemplary world-building screenplay. The locales and characters of Miller's vision are steeped in details that are never formally explained, but merely revealed with the trust that audiences can soak them in and figure them out as they go.

Miller knows that idiosyncrasies such as kamikaze war boys “chroming” themselves, or a flame-throwing guitar soloist atop an amp-mobile, or any other tidbit best left to discover on one's own would not benefit from verbal exposition. But in visual context, everything we see, from the largest set to the tiniest prop,
is of a piece with his demented Hellscape.
As if all that wasn't bonkers enough for you, the tangibly dangerous action scenes – principally achieved through heart-stopping stunts and practical effects – make it clear how this movie could only have been made by a madman. But evident in that madness is such meticulous method, that Fury Road rises well above the throng of bombastic summer blockbusters.

Good action movies often get chalked up as editing achievements – granted, Margaret Sixel's footage assembly here is white-knuckle stuff – but there's something to be said about the way an action movie is shot that often goes unheralded. The way images are composed to fit multiple layers of activity in frame, yet without becoming the cinematic equivalent of a 12-car pileup (see Avengers: Age of Ultron), is a fine art that hearkens back to the days of Buster Keaton, whom Miller has cited as an influence on his Mad Max endeavours.

The well advertized shot of Max swinging atop a metronome-like pole whilst vehicles barrel roll and explode behind him is just one example of how Miller and his cinematographer John Seale (himself a man in his seventies) maintain the film's visual assault without sacrificing coherence. As well, Seale – who won an Oscar for capturing the Tunisian desert in The English Patient – lends surreal beauty to this stark and violent landscape with scorching oranges and chilling teals, albeit helped along by extensive post-production colour tweaking.
If you're the sort of person who really needs your movies to be about something more than mere spectacle, there are a few thematic oases to latch onto amidst the sensory onslaught. You could say it's a film about the dangers of blind fanaticism, given face by a disillusioned war boy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Or you could look to its unmistakable feminist edge and say it's a film about running over the shackles of male oppression. Theron's gritty star turn as Furiosa deserves to join the ranks of Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor as the most badass heroines in the genre.

But let's not kid ourselves. The spectacle is what this movie's all about. And when it's delivered as imaginably, as cleverly, and indeed as crazily as Miller does here, the only proper way to appreciate it is to sit back, buckle up, and revel in its glorious madness.

**** out of ****


  1. I like how the first image of this review reminds of Tom Hardy's other role in The Dark Knight Rises.