Friday, June 26, 2015

Mad Max Fury Road: It Made My Pants Pee THEIR Pants

I was extremely skeptical when I heard about Mad Max: Fury Road. For one thing, the last installment in the series was Max Mad Beyond Thunderdome, and even if I had thought that MMBT was good (I didn’t), I still would’ve seen this as yet another pathetic attempt to make money off of an extinct franchise. It didn’t take more than 30 minutes to show that my assumptions were completely incorrect – and I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed being wrong this much in my whole life.

This trailer is so damn good. I even love the "bwaaamp"-like horn blares.

Since we’re at the point where movies are being rebooted constantly (will the real Spider-man please stand up?) and studios seem desperate for any familiar name that will guarantee a certain number of tickets sold, I can’t blame myself for my response. My expectations rose a little when I heard that Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron would be the leads, but actors are no guarantee of a film’s ultimate quality, and those two names alone couldn’t totally mollify my skepticism. I do know, however, that I should’ve paid attention and noticed that it was being made by George Miller – the writer-director of all the prior Mad Max films.

Miller’s presence on the project was a virtual guarantee that this wasn’t just a cheap cash-grab, both because he’s so intimately familiar with the series, and because the man does good work. Not perfect work – but very distinct, very consistent in tone, and of very good overall quality even if the subject matter isn't appealing. The first film was a depressing “every man’s worst nightmare” experience – the worst-case scenario in which your best friends (the only lawkeepers in the area) are picked off one by one, and then your wife and infant are killed. The second film saw Max losing everything that he had left, and then wandering off to be by himself - which pissed me off, because he could have stuck with those people he rescued at least long enough to get e.g., a new car and a new dog.

So Thunderdome didn’t work for me because it was excessive in all the worst ways of 1980’s excess, and I didn’t like the subplot with the children. When that film ended with Max completely losing what little he had, totally screwed and wandering off into the desert once again, I just decided that I had had enough. None of that meant, however, that Miller didn’t have a dedication to telling a story well, and filling it with good characterization. Some of my opinions boiled down to some stylistic choices, and how old I was when I watched these pictures.

Mad Max: Fury Road, however, is nothing less than a stellar achievement, one all the more laudable for feeling of a piece with a series that began in 1979 and last appeared in 1985. Numerous elements call back to prior entries - the intimations of Max's murdered family hearken back to the first movie, towns dedicated to creating one precious resource was the crux of Beyond Thunderdome, while the second and the third appear in the form of the cold open (The Road Warrior especially), as well as the truck vs. convoy battles, which now dominate the endings of all three sequels. And the title character remains the same: damaged, self-concerned and yet incapable of truly abandoning people in need, always pushing forward to survive...

Best of all, Miller managed to adapt to the times. The opening sequence has a frenetic speed and energy that resemble old Hong Kong films, or perhaps the Crank movies. Moreover, the characters are used more sharply than ever before. Also, in the 1980's, movies tended to be "men's films" or "women's films." But our present day entertainment can include bad-ass women as much as it does ass-kicking men. Here, Charlize Theron's Furiosa is as tough and capable as the titular lead, and given that she has more dialogue, she's at least as much of a protagonist as he is. In fact, if you look at MM:FR through a basic writing lens, it's about Furiosa, whose story Max Rockatansky stumbles into; Max is actually an incidental player in this narrative - which is both a strong and confident writerly choice, as well as something that's in keeping with Road Warrior and Thunderdome.

And that feminist sensibility doesn't just end with the lovely Charlize Theron, the highest-profile actor here. Oh, I forgot to recount the basic story, didn't I? Sorry, ahem: Mad Max: Fury Road begins with the eponymous lead (Max, played by Tom Hardy) getting caught by a gang in futuristic, post-apocalypse Australia. When Max finally gets away from the brutal cabal ruled by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), he finds himself forced to align with Furiosa (Charlize Theron) - a respected fighter who has decided to betray her master and liberate a group of "perfect," mutation-free women used by Joe as breeding stock.

And when that is what's chasing you, you f--king run. Fast.

So, yeah, even these other women receive more agency than the roles portrayed by actresses in many other films. This Aussie future world is so bleak that, honestly, being well-treated but forced to have babies is actually a pretty good deal. In the end, though, it's still a form of slavery, and it's great that their freedom is what Max and Furiosa are ultimately fighting for.

However, as the picture goes along, you see these women - all of whom are played by f--king Victoria's Secret models - express their own individual hopes, fears, and desires. When you see them truly start to take advantage of their prized status, you should be pumping your fist in the air in awe and admiration that they get some legitimate agency, and that they actually take back their power and use it against their tormentors. I swear to f--king God, any God, that Dworkin and MacKinnon should hand this film some special prize by year's end.

It will be easy for many people to ignore this aspect of the movie. Why? Because Fury Road starts at a run, and builds up to an even greater speed repeatedly during its running time. There are less than a handful of pauses and slower scenes, but Mad Max 4 is generally a race from start to finish, one that's exhausting for the characters and blissfully draining for the audience, in the way that only great, rigorous exercise can be. To watch MM:FR is to become drained by excitement and adventure, and I'd want to hug George Miller for this, even he hadn't kept his motifs and included such a strong feminist theme.

And the miracles just keep on coming: this is only the second non-animated film that I've seen in 3D, and the effect worked beautifully. The 3D didn’t make the screen too dark, and fit very well with the footage Miller shot. It only took me out of the moment a few times - and that was mostly because someone’s face in the foreground would suddenly feel like it was moving toward me, even though there was no camera movement.

Really, this cinematic spectacle represents a conundrum for me in some other ways. I've long noticed that my reviews tend to approach a picture story-first, because that's where my attention as an artist tends to be drawn to. And this movie is incredibly impressive and satisfying, despite the fact that its story is so simple and so slight. The only way that an effort like this can be this successful and this satisfying is by nailing every beat of the slim tale that it has to tell, as well as providing the viewer with so many interesting characters and such an exciting background as to make everyone in the audience stand up and pay attention.

Having mentioned the uniformly-solid Victoria's Secret models - Rosie Huntington Whitley, Riley Keough, Courtney Eaton, Abbey Lee, and Zoe Kravitz - I should discuss the rest of the cast. Hardy and Theron are equally excellent as two ruined individuals who persevere however they can. In the case of Max, it's the barest-bones concept of survival - you maintain your body's ability to function, you gather resources that you need, and you trust no one and nothing. For Furiosa, however, we catch her in the midst of a moment of clarity - kidnapped and impressed into Immortan Joe's army, Furiosa did to others what was done to her, and cannot abide leaving other ladies subject to Joe's plan for creating mutation-free offspring. In both performance and in how they are written, these are two of the most compelling characters I've seen in at least 5 years.

I've loved Theron's work forever, so it's no surprise to me that she can do all this. The real revelation, then, was Hardy. I respected his work in The Dark Knight Rises, but Bane didn't exactly reveal to me how good an actor he is. I saw him in Inception, but his role there is so slight that he didn't make much of a distinct impression there, either. I also saw him as the bad guy in Star Trek Nemesis - about which the less said, the better. Hardy is so natural in the part, and so charismatic, and so subtle in all the right ways... I feel like I've never actually seen him before until now.

And yet I'd be an idiot for leaving out Nicholas Hoult. I sure as hell didn't recognize him as the little kid from About A Boy, nor had I seen any of his other work. I had very low expectations for his character, Nux - prejudices which Fury Road also completely trounced. His performance is excellent, and the part is written with far more depth - and is used far better - than I would have thought. Action films have a tendency to give everything good to two or three actors, usually the top-billed ones, or whoever plays the hero and/or the villain. Miller didn't fall for that here, to the audiences' benefit.

Hugh Keays-Byrne stands out as the oddest figure in the cast. He portrayed the main villain in the first Mad Max, only to be recast as an altogether different lead villain here. I thought I hadn't seen any of his other work - until I checked his CV and realized that he played Grunchlk on my favorite ever sci-fi series, Farscape (his work therein is beyond great). Immortan Joe is, like everyone else, written in a way that doesn't involve ridiculous exposition for the sake of the viewer... And he is somehow about as fleshed out as everyone else, despite the fact that we don't really learn anything about his past. Joe is a creature of the present moment, one who is domineering, brutal, and intelligent. He's driven, and we know why he's so driven to hunt down our leads, and that's really all we need to know. Joe is a masterstroke on the part of both Miller and Keays-Byrne.

Each one of these players, and the various others that I haven't mentioned, step in to this broken, insane world and give it as much heart and depth as any action film before it. Aliens, Die Hard, Raiders of the Lost Ark... Whatever you have set as your high-water mark, the movie meets and/or exceeds the accomplishments of those movies. And this cast is thrust into the midst of one of the most action-intensive pictures I have ever seen.

I like all the little elements that are just there, with no explanation or clarification, to flesh out this environment of pure necessity. They represent extremely smart world-building, like how often the leads don't kill people. Part of me says that it's because they realize everyone is desperate to survive... or that it's also because ammunition is scarce, so you only kill when you have to. I will only complain that fuel is supposed to be scarce, and yet the bad guys use a lot of flames in their weaponry. But, who cares, it looks so great!

Fury Road flows from one action sequence to another, filmed so beautifully that I wouldn't have been surprised to learn that the budget was $300 million, and not the $150M that is listed. Nor would you ever guess that the cinematographer is John Seale, who won an Oscar for his work on The English Patient, and who also lensed Witness, Children of a Lesser God, Stakeout, Rain Man, Gorillas in the Mist, Dead Poets Society, the first Harry Potter, and The Perfect Storm, among many others. Remember that scene in Dead Poets where Ethan Hawke and Robin WIlliams use flexible poles to pull women out of a rapist's car? Or the gripping firefights between Jane Goodall and her primates?

Yeah, me neither. As fine as all those films looked, nothing in his resume has the pure, maniacal, wall-to-wall action sensibility that MMFR has. And you sure as hell wouldn't assume that this clever, lush, gorgeous cinematography is the work of a 72 year-old man. Then again, you wouldn't think that 70 year-old George Miller, the man behind all the Mad Max films, is the same guy who wrote Babe, much less was the writer/director of Babe: Pig in the City, both Happy Feet films (!), and Lorenzo's Oil.

In every single way, Mad Max Fury Road subverts expectations, overcoming them with inventiveness, dedication to good storytelling, and top-to-bottom quality in sound and visual design. I really didn't undersell how good the 3D effects are, nor have I spent pages experiencing a veritable verbal orgasm over how most of these stunts were practical - up to and including people pole-vaulting from one moving vehicle to another. For lovers of good, smart action pictures, this movie is The Promised Land. And, if it hasn't happened to you before then, you'll experience true delight at one later scene where the score fluidly becomes diegetic music being played by someone in the film - and you'll laugh your ass off at how funny and effective and cool it is.

It's as if I died and hallucinated the perfect action-adventure film in my last few seconds of brain function. It would have been a beautiful vision to go out on.

Don't watch this awesome scene. Just wait until you buy your tickets.

Oh, and by the by, George Miller is also a medical doctor, on top of all of his artistic skills. So, yes, he IS better than you and me.


  1. Glad you liked this movie,I've heard nothing but good things about it. A nice bonus is that MM:FR has ticked off some of those "men's rights" types who think this is an evil feminist propaganda piece, which only made a lot more women buy tickets to it:)

    1. Oh, this film is just wonderful and you really should try to see it in a theater if you can. If this movie were a woman, I'd have proposed by now.

      And yes, anything that pisses off "Men Are So Neglected" set is a blessing - as is anything that promotes female attendance at cinemas. Maybe that's what will finally make studios a bit more attentive to and respectful of women - realizing that gasp, they've been sh--ting all over "a key demographic" (also: human beings) for ages...

  2. This is one of the few films I have seen where the hype matches reality. Beautiful review. I agree. I also was not a fan of Thunderdome, so I was surprised how much I loved this film.

    1. That is so true! I try to avoid hype where I can - or I pay attention to the initial wave of it and then just ignore a film until I go to see it - but this movie surpassed the praise I'd been hearing. I start to smile whenever I even think about the screening I went to....


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