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Entries in Mad Max: Fury Road [2015] (1)

Sunday
May172015

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Paved with Grand Invention

Mad Max: Fury Road is the work of insane people. Determining the craziest member of the production is like a mental shell game where the ball is a live grenade. It’s easy to pin this unconventional blockbuster on director George Miller (who created 1979’s Mad Max, its two sequels, and this new-century re-launch) and co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris. But someone at Warner Brothers green-lit this thing, and it’s hard to imagine they’d had anything in mind at the time but a conventional, brand-recognition cash-grab. Instead, Miller and company emerged from the African desert with a grimy, fiery spectacle of pathos, passion, and danger sure to join Star WarsDie Hard, Batman, and Terminator 2 as one of those genre-re-defining films whose opening weekend you’ll remember forever.

That sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not. This is the thrill-ride that’s been promised to me by every summer tent-pole adventure of the last decade, and the only one to fully deliver the goods. For nearly two hours, I sat open-mouthed and bug-eyed watching practical, grand-scale action choreography that my mind could literally not process as being possible. In an era of CGI robots, Avengers, and urban disaster porn overseen by (and catering to) script-suspicious man-children, I guess it takes a sixty-seven-year-old to prove that computer graphics are more effective as enhancements than substitutions—and that cars colliding should be a blood-curdling event instead of a less compelling distraction than a friend's text message from two seats down.

Intentionally or not, Miller’s approach to re-introducing Mad Max (Tom Hardy, taking over from Mel Gibson) mirrors that of Robert Rodriguez’s journey from micro-budget indie phenom, El Mariachi, to the studio-backed, star-packed Desperado. Fury Road is at once a remake and a sequel that establishes its universe in a series of disorienting, quick-cut flashbacks. One need not have seen the other films in the series to understand or appreciate Fury Road, and Fury Road doesn’t take pains to erase what’s come before.

Max is an ex-cop who went crazy after losing his wife and daughter to a fierce gang of desert marauders in the hope-starved, post-apocalyptic landscape. We catch up with him as he's captured and brought into the citadel of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne*).  When the warlord's top lieutenant, Furiousa (Charlize Theron), absconds with his harem of "breeders" (one of whom is pregnant), Joe leads an army of tricked-out murder machines into the desert. Furiousa's armored tanker truck is loaded down with gasoline, mother's milk, and five stowaways whom she's promised to bring to "the green place"--an oasis from which she was kidnapped as a child. Joe's gang includes a death-metal band riding storeys-high speaker trucks; homicidal acrobats; and pasty, afterlife-obsessed "War Boys", who subsist on the blood of captured desert folk--like our bonkers hero, Max.

Fury Road has been falsely described as "two hours of non-stop action" by fans and critics who desperately want genre freaks to see this thing in theatres. I appreciate the effort, but it's a misguided sentiment. Miller has directed one of the most uniquely rousing action films ever, true, but I don't want casual moviegoers to think of Transformers or Battleship when passing a Fury Road billboard. There's so much more going on in Miller's desolate landscape than meets the eye, so much that's left up for interpretation and discussion than any recent capes-and-catastrophe popcorn flick. There are, if I recall correctly, three major action scenes in Fury Road; a handful of tense skirmishes; and a whole lot of lean introspection that's just as chilling in its ideas as the sight of bodies flying through the air and then steamrolled under tank-sized tires.

The film has three stars: lead actors Hardy and Theron, and a team of editors, production designers, stunt artists, and wardrobe whom Miller led through this most improbable of victories. Let's start with the cast first. Hardy is great as Max, but mostly because he's barely in the movie. For at least the first half hour, the actor's face is obscured by either a raggedy beard or a metal muzzle (which, of course, recalls his role as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises). The ostensible headliner of what has been planned as a new trilogy, one would expect Hardy to go the route of, say, Chris Hemsworth's Thor: a character known for wearing an iconic helmet, who never wears the iconic freaking helmet. But Hardy sheds vanity and builds a real character here, one who has gone clinically insane and so spends most of the film in a darting-eyed, mumbling fugue state when not propelled by instinct to flee or fight.

This leaves plenty of room for Fury Road's true hero, Furiosa, to shine. Franchise devotees might find it blasphemous to learn that macho maniac Max has been superseded by an Oscar-winning, makeup-model darling aping Ellen Ripley. But these are the same imagination-starved cretins who're still waiting for Mel Gibson to reprise the title role. Let us never underestimate Theron's gifts as a performer;** let us instead marvel at the bold character she's created with the writers and director. Furiosa is the epitome of toughness, compassion, and perseverance--a woman unspeakably damaged by the world and yet single-mindedly focused on forging a new one. Ultimately, Max couldn't cut it. His relationship to society is strictly incidental, whereas Furiosa dreams of a land in which peace and justice might once again stand a chance. She doesn't need rescuing, nor does the screenplay require that she find an identity by sleeping with or sticking by the grizzled, world-saving hero.

Sidebar One: I'd like to address one of the big talking points surrounding Fury Road. Under the same rock where you'll find the aforementioned Gibsonites are a loose collective of talking turds known as "Men's Rights Activists". I don't know what they want or where they came from, but they're very upset at Fury Road, because it's emblematic of cultural castration--or something. I would like to point out that genre films, in particular, have a rich history of strong female characters kicking ass and saving dudes. You can start with the Alien franchise and end with just about every slasher film of the last thirty-five years.

The only crime Fury Road commits, as far as I can tell, is to leave out the romantic entanglement between the hero and heroine. Max still cracks skulls and gets to save the girl--just as Furiosa punishes the wicked and helps redeem Max on her way to a far richer victory. I'm sure there are plenty of media signposts to indicate that, at any moment, men will be pulled from their homes and placed in gender re-assignment camps (or something), but that highway doesn't intersect with Fury Road.

Sidebar Two: Feminists could use perspective in this area, as well. To hear some describe the state of mainstream cinema, you'd think women are still struggling to get out of the celluloid kitchen. Hollywood may not have achieved parity between the sexes (whatever that means, or however it might be measured), but arguments touting the lack of female-targeted and female-empowering entertainment are false on their face. I'm not the biggest fan of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Julie & Julia, Bridesmaids, or may of the other so-called "chick flicks" flooding the market. But one look no further than this weekend's runaway smash, Pitch Perfect 2, to see that the extreme positions on both sides of the gendertainment argument are, well, extreme.

As for Fury Road's third star, the team that created this world is to be commended for its ambition in the face of low expectations. Miller and his crew didn't need to put so much thought into how their impoverished future society would function; they just needed to put asses in cars to get asses in seats. But every aspect of the production has been so expertly curated as to spark the mind. From the porcupine-like Bug cars piloted by the Mad Max universe's version of Sand People to Immortan Joe's intricate human-electricity empire, there is a wealth of untold stories at the edges of each scene; Fury Road is a sun-soaked Children of Men crossed with Dredd

I'm not sure where blockbusters go from here. The rest of this summer feels like a wash already, and I'm not even that jazzed for The Force Awakens anymore. George Miller has already transported me to a galaxy far, far removed from anything I'd had a right to expect. The long and short of it is: see Fury Road now, see it loud, and see it big. Waiting to see this epic on home video (or, God forbid, your phone) isn't just a foolish idea--it's downright mad.

*The actor also played the murderous biker Toecutter in Mad Max.

*The Devil's Advocate aside.