Monday, May 11, 2015

Review: "Mad Max: Fury Road"

Director: George Miller
Runtime: 120 minutes

For a movie franchise that has lain dormant for 30 years, George Miller's Mad Max saga has never looked or sounded better. Both a sequel to and a reimagining of Miller's original trilogy, this long-in-the-works film is an exhilarating, exhausting, and loopy adventure that has what so many blockbusters lack: a personality. For better and for worse (mostly for better), Fury Road is undeniably an un-compromised work from a singular vision that has clearly stayed limber. 

That singular vision is amplified, not restricted, by the limitations of the story. Despite several well-chosen lulls across the film's two hours, Fury Road boils down to one big chase. With this straightforward template laid out, Miller is able to stuff each scene to the gills with visual and sonic flourishes. Frankly, a more complex plot would have only gotten in the way of Fury Road's blunt visceral impact. 

For even though this tale of Max (Tom Hardy) and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) on the run from a psychotic warlord touches on some important issues, it does so through the lens of an adventure. Imagine if Wagner had composed "The Ride of the Valkyries" while snorting cocaine, and you'll have a decent idea of what to expect from this cinematic circus maximus.

Like Max, the viewer is thrust into a post-apocalyptic nightmare with little time to fully understand the specifics. After Max's initial remarks (via voiceover), he is immediately captured by a group of thugs for the warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a bloated mass of a man with a shock of white-blonde hair and eye make-up that would send the Devil packing. Joe's citadel contains many luxuries, but only for the chosen few. The huddled masses are at Joe's mercy, and their desperation comes through not just in their screams, but in the lifetime of trauma shown on their bodies. Fury Road takes the pop-punk dystopia elements of its predecessors and turns them up to 11. The scars and deformities are unlike anything you've ever seen, and that's just touching the surface of the warped imagination on display.

Since Miller's story and his characters' goals are so minimal, it comes down to these world-building details to make it all somewhat convincing. In that regard, Fury Road is a downright masterclass. Between 80 and 85% of the stunts that occur (and 100% of the vehicles used) are real, and it shows. There are cars stacked on top of oil tankers, and old-fashioned buggys covered in nasty metal spikes. There's a mega-truck that has a damn tractor mounted on the back. And, yes, there is a vehicle whose sole purpose is to blast screeching death metal, led by a demonic musician with an electric guitar that shoots fire. And yet, for all of the bombast on display, Miller refuses to become indulgent when showing off the madcap stunts of his ensemble. Fury Road is as subtle as a scream and has all the blunt force of a hurricane, but it's also an exercise in understanding when to give the audience a break. 

Had Miller kept up the pace of the first half hour for the remaining 90 minutes, Fury Road's simplicity would have quickly become its undoing. Instead, Miller weaves in a string of moments that either greatly reduce the action, or stop it all together. Yet in these spaces that allow the eyes and ears to recover, Miller never loses control of his story's momentum. There are no expository flashbacks or longwinded speeches that threaten to grind the narrative to a halt. There is great seriousness amid Fury Road's chaos, but Miller never pushes it to the point of dour pretension. 

The simplicity of the story is reflected in the simplicity of the characters, and that includes Hardy's Max. Max is, if anything, no more than a gateway character. His manic grunts and twitchy head movements (he spends a quarter of the film acting as a living IV bag, after all) show that he is a man pushed far over the edge. And yet Hardy never goes out of his way to steal the show. Max is the outlier of the story, and a surprisingly good fit to play second fiddle. 

The first chair, quite clearly, belongs to Theron's bald, bionic woman, and Fury Road is all the better because of this. Max's motivation can be reduced to mere survival, but Furiosa is out for something that cuts deeper: redemption. In the bright orange wastelands of a world gone horrifically insane, she seeks asylum not just for herself, but for the living cargo she carries with her: five slave brides married to Joe for the purpose of breeding and producing milk. 

Despite the muscle cars, explosions, and outlandishly macho cries for a glorious death, Mad Max might just be one of the most unabashedly feminist blockbusters in recent memory. Though Joe's slave brides spend most of the film in skimpy white bikinis, they prove to be more than damsels in distress. And, later on, Miller introduces an entire clan of warrior women of all ages, who prove up to the task of going toe-to-toe with Joe's horde of male soldiers. There are characters in Fury Road who exploit women, but Miller himself does all he can to empower them. Fury Road is about fighting against the odds, not post-apocalyptic love, and the dedication to life-or-death stakes leaves the film refreshingly asexual.   

With only a few notable instances of visual effects (the most obvious being an overwhelming sandstorm), Mad Max stays relatively grounded (yes, even with the flame-spewing guitar) compared to contemporary blockbuster fare. It's a chase movie that lives and dies by the success of its vehicular carnage, and not by how many fantastical digital creations it can force onto the screen. There is madness aplenty, but it is sweaty, tear-streaked, gnarly madness rooted in a self-contained story. This isn't a tale about cataclysmic events that changed the world, but rather a story of survival long after the dust has settled, and there's nothing to do but charge forward. As Furiosa herself puts it, "You wanna get through this? Do as I say. Now pick up what you can, and run."

Grade: B+

No comments: