Thursday, May 21, 2015

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

Mad Max: Fury Road is one bold film. It's directed, like all Max films, by George Miller, who starts with a simple, audacious hook — the entire film is one extended chase sequence — then somehow manages to build it up into a surprisingly complex piece of storytelling and comes out with a masterpiece of boom. A mad, surrealist cavalcade of rock and roll carnage aiming a fat middle finger at every big budget faux-action epic of the last decade.

That hook would kill many other directors who don't know how to handle the pacing, but Miller knows how to rev-up and downshift carefully, mostly moving too fast to get bogged down in the kind of extended exposition dumps that often kill intricate fantasy worlds before they get out of the gate. Instead Miller, who radically reinvents the Mad Max universe with every new installment, has the confidence to throw us into the deep end after a brief grounding voice over reminding us that the Wasteland is a post-apocalyptic world and Max (Tom Hardy) is its Man With No Name, before we're off and running, watching Max get chased down and imprisoned by a band of mutant freaks called the War Boys.

But despite being the title character, Max has always been more of an inciting incident than a full-tilt protagonist. The film's real hero is the awesomely named Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a worn-out one armed courier for irradiated despot Immortan Joe. Furiosa quickly goes rogue, speeding away from the citadel in a Hail Mary caper to smuggle Joe's five sex slaves to safety in her War Rig. Joe gets wind of this and goes after her with his entire of war boys, among whom is a joyously enthusiastic soldier named Nux (Nicholas Hoult) who brings Max along for horrifying reasons I'll leave you to discover.

A few bits of business and some shifting alliances aside, that's really about it in terms of plot. The film is focuses on pure kinetic action. Miller throws us into the middle of lightning tornado, BMX bombers, buzzsaw trucks saboteurs and chainsaw jugglers. The hyper-fast quick rhythm borders on abstraction at times, but never loses an ounce of cohesion or clarity. Miller and Cinematographer John Seale (The English Patient) often frame multiple things at once. Consider the moment where Furiosa is firing a gun off camera when behind her, a motorcycle jumps into frame and she turns and shoots the driver in mid-air. The film has a dynamic sense of balletic movement and timing that at once feels grounded and also recalls the kinetic motion of a Chuck Jones short. It's an understatement to just say that the action is clear, it has style, showmanship and a lot of daring in its superb stunt work. It's not just that the film has explosions – many films have explosions – it's that this film has some of the greatest explosions ever detonated, and it has a lot of them.

While all the booming unfolds, the world is being impressively built up the background. Miller has long had a talent for comic-book sensationalism that is also telling detail work. With the aid of an unlimited budget, and comic artist Brendan McCarthy as a "co-writer," the world of the Wasteland has never felt more fleshed out. The film rarely pauses for exposition, or dialogue of any kind, but it tells us a lot to see how Joe brainwashes people while controlling access to vehicles by distributing steering wheels at a religious alter. It tells us something about Furiosa when we notice the brand on her neck and the wrench on her robot arm. When Joe calls for reinforcements from neighboring fiefdoms, we get a sense at the power structure of the world. Joe himself is played with epic relish by Hugh Keays-Byrne cutting an imposing figure with a mask made from a human jawbone and if there was any doubt that Miller means to depict him as a symbol for corrupt patriarchy, showing us his pale, tumorous torso being clad in translucent vacuform muscles should settle it.

The film's handling of its sexual politics are quite refreshing. Furiosa is a kick ass character who more than steals the show, and alows the film to avoid the tired 'damsel' trope. It's a minor disappointment that the wives (Rose Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Zoe Kravitz, Abbey Lee and Courtney Eaton) aren't fleshed out just a bit more as individuals, but as a group, they're quite compelling as a group of emotionally damaged abuse survivors, trying to work together to escape, while having doubts about the agency they've just claimed for themselves. Too many action films deal with sexual violence as something that happens to women's bodies to motivate a man to fight back. But in the midst of all its mayhem, Miller actually engages with this issue in a genuine way.

This progressiveness isn't new for the series: Road Warrior used mankind's dependence on oil as pointed subtext. Fury goes further, not just substituting oil for sex-slavery and human trafficking but also water and all the things that come with it. Miller's Wasteland has expanded to show us a world where everything we take for granted is commodified by dictators to make people into slaves. The film isn't subtle about this (Joe refers to his water as Aqua-Cola) but Miller and his writers do all this in passing, and are thankfully never interested in preaching. It allows us to keep our attention on what we came to see – the 10,000 righteous, brain scrambling explosions the film delivers.
  
Fury Road is a blast, the kind of masterclass of visceral filmmaking that doesn't come along very often. Elements of this film will be imitated for years, and I suspect that its iconography will seep into the public consciousness much in the same way that Road Warrior did. Miller has said that he would like to make more films in the series but I wonder if the very things that made this film work so well may also make it unique. Miller is a master, but a series of delays going back 15 years allowed him and his collaborators to carefully craft every small element of the films world. At any rate, it's certainly one Hell of springboard.

Grade: A

Note: The film is availible in post-converted 3D. The quality of the conversion is adequate but the effect is minimal. See it in bright, clear 2D.

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