Monday, May 18, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road (***1/2)

Directed by George Miller


Mad Max: Fury Road is demented poetry; watching it is probably the closest I'll ever come to mainlining amphetamines. The film is the fourth of the Mad Max series, and while all have been directed by Australian filmmaker George Miller, it's the first film in the franchise in 30 years, since 1985's Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. This is also the first one in which the titular Max is played by Tom Hardy, replacing Mel Gibson who built his stardom on the character of Max Rockatansky. Hardy isn't the movie star that Gibson was, but neither was Gibson when the initial Mad Max film arrived. I should admit early: I've never seen any of the previous Mad Max films. Fury Road is my inaugural stroll through George Miller's dystopian universe and it's a doozy. This film doesn't care much about characterization, but it doesn't completely ignore it either. It's the rare film that can tell you all you need to know about its characters through its action sequences, and Fury Road has plenty of those. More than anything, Fury Road is a trademark of a smart director, a person who sees that a car chase and a story don't have to be mutually exclusive, that you can make an action film with above average intelligence without alienating your intended audience.

The Max we see here has become damaged by his past, haunted by the regret of not saving those he had the opportunity to save. He's bearded, eating two-headed lizards and trekking through the Australian desert without much purpose. When he's hunted down by the War Boys and branded as a universal donor, he's bound by chains and hung as a "blood bag" for sick War Boys made anemic by the limited resources of their bleak existence. They serve King Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a mask-wearing tyrant who rules his land by controlling the water source, starving his people and piecemealing out water to show his "gratitude". When he sends Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) out on a hulking war rig to collect gasoline, Joe is stunned to find her change course early in her journey. Furiosa's change in plans reveals her true intentions: rescuing Joe's Five Wives. The Wives are several beautiful women that Joe had imprisoned in a massive vault to use as premium "breeders". They were baby-making slaves, and Joe's best chance at creating normal, un-mutated children. Stolen, they become the regime's top priority, and the hunt for Furiosa and the wives starts quickly, with the entire War Boy army taking suit.

One War Boy, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), is using Max as his personal blood bag when the signal is called for the pursuit of the war rig. Too sick to leave alone, Nux affixes Max to the front of his vehicle - he's still supplying Nux with blood through a tube - and drives out with the rest of the army. Furiosa's plan is nearly foiled in the early going, as the War Boys do all they can to stop the rig and get back Joe's wives. Nux especially pursues, carelessly putting the helpless Max in harm's way for an attempt to win glory in front of Joe (Joe promises his disciples that death in duty will provide immortal afterlife). When the War Boys' initial attempt to stop the war rig fails, Max and Nux - still connected - manage to stay alive but they've been abandoned by the rest of the crew. Max frees himself from his shackles and nearly runs off with the war rig on his own, until he learns that the engine runs on kill switches that only Furiosa knows how to control. Begrudgingly, Max joins Furiosa and the young wives in their attempt to reach a place of freedom, far from the oppression Joe promises their existence. Along the way, Nux becomes part of the team and they unite with a badass group of rifle-wielding elderly women, natives of Furiosa's former peaceful home, the place she was kidnapped from as a little girl.

A Hollywood action film focused on women taking it upon themselves to overthrow a male tyrant is a unique, interesting idea indeed. Miller and Fury Road could have gained audience sympathy for these women simply by victimizing them - and, surely, their off screen lives as Joe's property must have been quite hellish - but this film doesn't need to show us their torture to help us understand their desperate situation. In a time when the abuse of women is often mindlessly employed as a plot point to easily tell the audience who is good and who is evil, Fury Road sees the rights of Furiosa and the Five Wives as self-evident. It trusts that the audience can understand their plight without having to actually show us the debauchery. The film's screenplay (written by Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris) is intelligent in its sparse use of dialogue. With few actual lines amidst the constant barrage of revving, fiery engines, their script wisely chooses where its moments of exposition are placed. We don't learn much about Max and Furiosa over the course of the film, but what we do learn is apropos to the film. Their choices throughout their rampages through dangerous territory gives us more information than any monologue could really provide.

As Max, Hardy is a bit of a cypher. He's speaks with an odd, accent-less flatness that makes you appreciate just how little he does say. This version of Max is not the kind I could imagine a young Mel Gibson inhabiting - and this film shows the difference between a true movie star like Gibson and a more formidable actor like Hardy. Both have a snarling, masculine handsomeness, but Gibson's charm was always inviting, Hardy's is always intimidating. Hardy is not above sublimating his role for the good of the film, and playing a protagonist as constantly reactionary. Max is given the film's most heroic moments, but the true heroism is held in Furiosa. Theron, her head shaved into a buzz cut and black make-up covering the top half of her face, gives Hardy a wonderful collaborator. Fury Road could have saved a lot of money by giving these stunt-heavy roles to performers without the acting resume but who were more physically capable. Casting Hardy and Theron proves the filmmakers' interest in fully forming these characters into something more than their actions. Hardy is still working on proving to American audiences that there is a separation between his sculpted specimen and his true thespian abilities, while Theron - an Oscar-winner - continues to show her surprisingly versatile range. Both performers achieve their goals here, all while allowing the film's sterling action to take center stage.

As a piece of filmmaking, Mad Max: Fury Road is exceptional on every level. It's the first major studio film I've seen in a long while that truly understood the importance of editing and how it can be used to dictate the tone and adrenaline of a scene. Editor Margaret Sixel, as well as cinematographer John Seale and as well as production designer Colin Gibson, come together to construct some beautifully crafted set pieces. Dystopias have been done plenty of times before (including three times before in this franchise), but Fury Road's rusted dilapidation (greatly aided as well by the grotesque costume work of Jenny Beavan) is so artfully portrayed, with landscapes occasionally projecting the beauty of a J.M.W. Turner painting. This is all credited to the vision of George Miller, the product of a (reportedly) fifteen-year pre-production schedule in which Miller obsessively worked to reconstruct his famed Mad Max universe. I'm hoping that the inherent intelligence in Fury Road doesn't dissuade American audiences (early returns are showing that it's already doing much better business overseas than it is domestically), and the story of Men's Rights groups protesting the film's 'feminist message' is a sobering reminder of the more close-minded pockets of our culture - if anything, that might help the film's bottom line. But of all the franchise films presented to us this Summer, Mad Max is easily the best one to come so far. It's also probably the best film so far this year, period.

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