Sunday, May 24, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

Alternate Title:  A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

One sentence synopsis:     Max Rockatansky becomes embroiled in an escape attempt by female sex slaves after he is captured by a fanatical warrior-cult.

Things Havoc liked:  Mad Max. What a cavalcade of total cracked-out insanity those two words conjure up for anyone of my approximate age. Three totally batshit films from underground Australian cinema master George Miller, the weakest of which spawned a whole series of pop culture catchphrases that survive through to today ("Two men enter..."). What with the recent trend of adapting 80s classics into bullshit "modern" remakes, Robocop and Total Recall come to mind, I was not overly pleased to hear that Mad Max was coming back to the big screen, but took some heart from the fact that George Miller himself would be directing the remake, and that to take over the duties of playing everyone's favorite Australian wasteland-wanderer, he had selected one of my favorite actors currently working, Tom Hardy.

At some nebulous point over the last couple of years, Tom Hardy became "the man", and has not relinquished this title since through a whole armful of films as varied as The Drop, Locke, and The Dark Knight Rises (shut up, I liked that one). Having seen Guy Pierce of all people take on Mad Max (or something like it) in The Rover last year, I was eager to see what an actor I actually liked might do with the role. The answer is exactly what he should. Hardy's Max is basically identical to Gibson's, if anything even more laconic and world-weary, to paraphrase the opening narration from the Road Warrior, "an ordinary man who was smashed by the wastelands". Hardy actually downplays Max quite a bit, an interesting decision that works well for the character. Max in the other films was always the loner who wandered by chance into the middle of other people's problems, and reluctantly took on the role of doing what he could to help. He doesn't pause to explain his motives, his background, even his name to basically anyone, getting everything across with a combination of glances and subtle gestures. In a way, this is full circle for Hardy. Two years ago, he was in a movie in which he drove a car for two hours and did nothing but talk. Now he is in a movie where he drives a car for two hours, and says practically nothing.

But that's manifestly the right call this time, because Max has a co-star here in the form of Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa, a child-slave-turned-warlord who decides to break a group of sex slaves out of captivity, despite the fact that this will surely incur the wrath of supreme war-boss Immortan Joe and his army of fanatical neo-barbarian quasi-viking killers. Theron is on fire in this movie, a shaven-headed ultrabadass with a prosthetic arm comprised of what looks like a drilling augur, and a body count that could rival anything Arnold has ever done. I've seen Theron kick ass before of course, I saw Monster and The Italian Job and Snow White and the Huntsman, but this is a whole different level of awesome, a rousting, violent, Mad Maxesque performance, which not only serves to force me to forgive her for Prometheus, but also proves that even with her head shaved, one arm hacked off at the elbow, and with face smeared indiscriminately with dirt and axle grease, Charlize Theron is still perhaps the most beautiful woman in the world. She and Max encounter one another fairly early on in the film through circumstances that are complex, albeit believable, and though everyone who's seen the trailers knows that these two will eventually team up to battle Immortal Joe, the process by which this happens, and in fact the general dynamic between Furiosa and Max, is one of the best renditions of this sort of thing I have ever seen. There is no telegraphed "moment" when they are on the same side, no turning point in the script where Furiosa finally trusts Max or vice versa. It is a completely natural thing, given the fantastic foes that these two face and the manifest rightness of the cause that Furiosa has staked everything on and that Max, without ever saying one word either in favor or against, clearly is prepared to see through. The dynamic is all the stronger for never being spoken of, as in the immediacy of the dangers they face, allegiances are apparent enough to require no words at all.

And what of those dangers and the means by which our heroes must overcome them? Oh... my... god...

The action in this movie is like nothing I've seen, perhaps ever before, a riotous assembly of expertly-crafted sequences that go on and on and on, never becoming stale or forced or gimmicky, as we are not watching some pale imitation of a greater classic, but a grandmaster producing his magnum opus before our very eyes. I have been waiting for literal years to have the opportunity to use the phrase "orgiastic bloodfest" in one of these reviews, and the day, my friends, has finally come. Mad Max is a symphony of death and violence, a ballet, a showcase of the cinematic art of killing that I struggle to find comparison points for. Not content with blocking and choreographing some of the greatest action I've ever seen, Miller gives us a techno-barbarian all-you-can-eat buffet of awesomeness that starts with chrome-painted warrior-cultists hurling explosive javelins at the spine-studded cars of their rivals from atop an armored big-rig moving at eighty miles an hour in the middle of a flaming sandstorm/hurricane/tornado cluster, and gets crazier from there. We get ravening mutants spouting garbled techno-viking mythology as they leap into battle bearing chainsaws and bolt cutters, or dangle from engine-block counter-weighted vaulters' poles to drop upon their enemies. We get warlords of the wastelands straight out of the Lord Humungous playbook who bear colorful titles like the Bullet Farmer or the People Eater, and who occasionally, start blasting away with reckless abandon with akimbo machine guns while screaming biblical rhetoric at the top of their lungs in the middle of a lightning storm, as the soundtrack strikes up thunderous orchestral overtures from Dies Irae and Gotterdammerung. We get a tribe of dirt-bike-riding old women who are also snipers, who bait reflective towers with beautiful naked girls to draw in predators, and who engage right alongside our heroes in pulse-shattering action showstopper scenes that would send most movie watchdog groups screaming into the night. So relentlessly mad, so demented, so gloriously epic is the action in this movie that it is totally in keeping with both the tone of the film and the world it presents when we discover that Immortan Joe's army is led into battle by a Mac truck made of speakers and amplifiers to which have been affixed half a dozen enormous Taiko drums, and at the front of which is stationed a red-garbed lunatic called The Doof Warrior who stands on a makeshift stage mounted on the truck's hood and shreds endlessly an electric guitar that spews fire.

And yet... for all this raving madness, there is underlying method to the world here, and this may be what Miller's strongest suit is for this film. The movie is batshit insane, but everything feels... 'real' is the wrong word, but 'consistent' is not. Little touches, like the use of steering wheels as holy relics by the warrior-cultists of Immortan Joe, like the slapped-together feel of even the mightiest war machine, like the names such as "Bullet Farmer" which evoke instantly what the dynamic must be between the various factions that are chasing our heroes, none of which is actually explained or even has attention drawn to it, but all of which points to a future world that has been meticulously thought out. Emblematic of this is a character played by Nicholas Hoult (of X-men First Class and Days of Future Past), a war cultist named Nux, introduced initially as simply another maniacal bad guy, but who over the course of the film, allows us to actually see the twisted and abused mentality that underlies the anarchic insanity of the War Boys and their machine cult. All of the other characters, from the former slaves themselves to the lieutenants of Immortan Joe, to Joe himself, played in a wonderful little throwback by Hugh Keays-Byrne, the very man who played the villain Toe-Cutter in the original Mad Max, all of their dialogue, their appearances, their very gestures and glances at one another, all are marshaled in service of telling the story of what this world is and how it became that way, obviating the need for exposition of any sort. If film is a visual medium and stories within it are to be shown and not told, then Miller here has put on a doctoral seminar on how to do just that, producing a film that has simultaneously no explanation within it at all, and all the explanation that anyone could possibly need.

Things Havoc disliked: It is challenging, truly challenging, to find a place in this movie where it fails somehow. Perhaps it's the logistics, as the film seems a long way removed from the shoestring remnant-feel of the previous films, films wherein individual bullets or half-broken children's toys were indescribably precious, literally irreplaceable items. The excesses of this film preclude that, as the warbands seem to have as much food, fuel, and ammunition as they could possibly want, and even Theron at one point suggests that if they take to motorcycles, they will have supplies enough to last them a hundred and sixty days (???). I suppose the movie is simply operating at a different scale this time, and positing a higher level of social organization among the warlord-clans, but one does miss the feel of things having gotten "real" that came when Lord Humungous decided to load his revolver with the last six bullets that remained, for all anyone knew, at all.

But that left aside, the only objection I can really make to Fury Road is that there isn't enough of it, in the sense that the world is so immense and complex and rich that the glimpses of it that we get are not enough to fully appreciate all that's going on. So many characters have unstated backstories or histories that are plainly in there somewhere but not shown to us, that it's impossible not to feel like we've missed a great deal. A lot of the dialog is fairly hard to understand, not because of the sound mix, but because the characters speak using a language we don't share and referring to things we don't know about. None of this is unintentional, of course, but one gets the sense that if we only had another half hour or so to study the world of Mad Max, we would come away with a deeper appreciation of its richness. But honestly, I'm at loathe to even suggest such a thing, as to mess with a movie this finely-produced could easily ruin everything, and perhaps its for the best that all we get to see is what's shown to us.

Final thoughts:   Last year, around six months ago, in the aftermath of the great disappointment that was The Expendibles 3, I posited that movie genres have their day, and that perhaps the Action movie as a genre piece was finally dead, and that the slew of bad action films I had seen in the two years before were simply the death rattle of the genre as a whole. In the half-year since that prediction, we have seen John Wick, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Fast and Furious 7, Kingsman: The Secret Service, and now this, one of if not the best action movies I have ever seen, a run of such quality that friends of mine have asked me if I might start publicly predicting the end of other genres such as Space Opera. At this point though, I've never been so glad to be wrong as I am now. In a year that, still not even half-complete, has showered us with amazing, high-quality action movies, Mad Max: Fury Road is, nonetheless, a revelation. Perhaps a revelation of total gibbering madness, but a revelation nonetheless. It is almost the platonic ideal of an action movie, packed with spectacles of violence sufficient to send any action movie fan into rapturous hysterics.

In almost any year but this one, Mad Max: Fury Road would be a shoe-in for the best movie of the entire year. That it may not reach such lofty heights in 2015 says a great deal about the overall quality of the blockbusters we have had so far. But even among such giants, Fury Road stands as proof positive that the best way to remake a beloved classic film is to find the filmmakers responsible for the original and dropping a dump truck full of money on their front lawns with a note pinned to the pile telling them that this time they should "do it properly". True, sometimes doing that will net you the Star Wars Prequels. But I would unhesitatingly put up with those all over again if it meant that I could, once in a while, get something as magical as this, a masterpiece reborn in madness, fire, and fury.

Final Score:  9/10

Next Time: The land wherein the sun will come out.

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