Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Movie Review: Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road
Directed by: George Miller.
Written by: George Miller and Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris.
Starring: Tom Hardy (Max Rockatansky), Charlize Theron (Imperator Furiosa), Nicholas Hoult (Nux), Hugh Keays-Byrne (Immortan Joe), Josh Helman (Slit), Nathan Jones (Rictus Erectus), Zoƫ Kravitz (Toast the Knowing), Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (The Splendid Angharad), Riley Keough (Capable), Abbey Lee (The Dag), Courtney Eaton (Cheedo the Fragile), John Howard (The People Eater), Richard Carter (The Bullet Farmer), Iota (The Doof Warrior), Angus Sampson (The Organic Mechanic), Jennifer Hagan (Miss Giddy), Megan Gale (The Valkyrie), Melissa Jaffer (Keeper of the Seeds).

You will not see a better action movie in 2015 than Mad Max: Fury Road. Hell, it will probably be years before you see a better action movie than Mad Max: Fury Road – which is the best this genre has produced in a long, long time. George Miller returns to the action genre after 30 years away from it, and shows everyone else in action cinema how it’s done. From first frame to last, Miller is trying to do something different – something you’ve never seen before – in an action film, and dammit all if he didn’t succeed.

This reboot of Miller’s Mad Max films starts with our hero, Max (Tom Hardy) trying to outrun a fleet of cars and failing. Taken away in chains, he ends up in a cage, and eventually will be used as a “blood bag” for someone else in a “civilization” that makes the one ran by Tina Turner in Beyond Thunderdome look like paradise. Ruled over by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne – who played Toecutter in the original Mad Max), this civilization seems to have three classes of people. There is Immortan Joe himself, who controls everyone and everything. There are the serfs at the bottom, who just want some water to survive – which Joe dolls out when he feels like it. Then there are the Warboys – violent young men with shaved heads, and face makeup, who worship Joe as if he were a God, and will do anything he asks of them. Women are enslaved as well – either as Joe’s personal “breeders”, or are milked like they are cows.

The main plot of the movie kicks off when Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who has risen to a higher position of power than most women, decides to take a detour. She’s supposed to be leading a team to “Gasland” to bring back fuel – she drives the massive “war machine” truck. But she has no intention of going to Gasland. She wants out of the clutches of Joe – and she’s taken his breeders with her. Joe sends his entire gang of Warboys, along with himself, out into the desert wasteland to stop her. And this is how Max finds himself strapped to the front of a car, having his blood slowly draining into Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a Warboy who “just needs a top up”, but has no intention of missing this. If he’s going to die, it’s going to be an honorable death on the road for Immortan Joe – before he takes his place in Valhalla.

The movie is essentially a two hour chase sequence, with only an occasional stop in the action as Furiosa, the women, and eventually Max and Nux, lose Immortan Joe for a moment, and stop to breath. But for most of the runtime, they don’t get that chance. But if the movie is light on plot, it makes up for it with the action – which is jaw dropping, and provides one image after another that I guarantee you have never seen before. Miller raises the level of everything he has did in the first three Mad Max films to insane levels. The costumes, vehicles and art direction take what was already one of the most memorable aspects of the original Mad Max movies, and takes them to a different place altogether. The sound of the movie is forever pulsating, thumping. A man strapped to the roof of a transport truck with bungee cords, wielding a flame spewing guitar provides the musical accompaniment to the forever loud engines, roaring into life. The action is handled with more skill and choreography than anything like it I have ever seen – the movie is constantly moving, often has chase sequences inside of chase sequences, and yet the action is never confusing – we know who is where, doing what, at all times. When Michael Bay attempts this, the result is often a confusing, headache inducing mess. When Paul Greengrass does this, the result is viscerally entertaining, even if a little confusing. In the hands of Miller, it is pure, action art.

If the movie had nothing on its mind other than the action, and all the visual and aural elements in the movie, it would still be the best action movie in years. What makes it even better – what elevates it to a level that few movies of its ilk even attempt – is that underneath all that action, there is genuine character development going on here. The relationship between Furiosa and Max grows as the movie progresses – and is more often than not conveyed in looks and body language between Hardy and Theron, not words. When Hardy spends a good half hour or more at the beginning of the movie in various cages, or strapped to the front of a car, not being able to do anything. Theron takes over the movie, and never really gives it back. Hardy is a great Max – more closed off than Gibson’s Max, expressing himself with grunts, and a few sparse words. He says he is haunted by both “the living and the dead” – and we believe him – he has visions of children asking for his help, that he cannot (that cannot bode well for kids from Thurnderdome). Hardy, a tremendous physical actor, is well used here by Miller. But it really is Theron’s movie from beginning to end. She has more of an arc (Max’s is basically survive, and then slowly finding his humanity to help out), and she does more with it. She wants to believe in something more – that things cannot be as bad everywhere as they are under Immortan Joe (a constant theme throughout the Mad Max movies). And more than that, the film is about feminism – sorry Men Right’s Activists, but it’s true, and it’s brilliant. In the early Mad Max films, the constant threat of violence against women played out in the background – probably in the original Mad Max more than the others, as we never really knew what the bike gang would do to Max’s wife if they caught her. Here, Miller has made it the entire plot of the movie – as Theron and the “breeders” want to escape, to have control over their own lives. It is true that other than Zoe Kravitz, the “breeders” are not really that well developed (and, I remain unconvinced that Rosie Huntington-Whiteley will ever make a very good actress), but it’s still fascinating to see. Also fascinating to watch is the relationship between Max and Furiosa slowly develop over time – from anger and mistrust, to a true understanding. There is a brilliant moment when Max picks up a rifle, with only one shot left, and is going to fire it when Furiosa approaches from behind – they exchange a look, and Max hangs over the gun, and allows himself to be used as a gun stand to steady the shot. That scene, without a word spoken, sums up their relationship perfectly.

Action movies in recent years have started to blend together for me – and to be honest, start to become boring and repetitive. Once in a while a John Wick comes along to temporarily invigorate the genre, but even that only does so much. What Miller has done in Mad Max: Fury Road is throw down the gauntlet for action cinema in the 21st Century. He doesn’t shy away from CGI, but much of the movie is done in practical effects as well. He doesn’t try to make everything chaotic with rapid fire editing that falsely looks visceral, when really it’s confusing. He’s raised the stakes for action filmmaking – just like he did 34 years ago when he made Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. In the process he has made one of the best action films you will ever see.

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