Friday, May 08, 2020

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Australia / USA / South Africa, 120 minutes
Director: George Miller
Writers: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nick Lathouris
Photography: John Seale
Music: Junkie XL
Editor: Margaret Sixel
Cast: Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoe Kravitz, Riley Keough, Nathan Jones, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Melissa Jaffer

Mad Max: Fury Road defies expectations in a number of ways, but producer, director, and cowriter George Miller has pretty much defied expectations all along with the Mad Max franchise. The first installment, 1979's Mad Max, is arguably the weakest of them all, a rare feat in the annals of movie franchises. It's a fairly conventional rape 'n' vengeance tale with little of the inspired postapocalyptic science fiction trappings that make the best of these movies soar. That best would be the second movie up (in the position usually reserved for "weaker"), 1981's Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, which feels like a positive revelation and seemed unlikely to be matched in our lifetimes. The third, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, from 1985, took the traditional position of third movies in franchises ("weakest" and/or 3D), a largely empty blustery star vehicle for Tina Turner (and what's-his-name) and an obvious attempt to cash in on the popularity (though it must be noted Beyond Thunderdome is still entertaining enough).

Then followed some 30 years of radio silence. Miller has always been worth checking on in the interval, with interesting attempts at this or that: a pretty good episode in Twilight Zone: The Movie ("Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"), a decent family drama-of-the-week in Lorenzo's Oil from 1992, and another inspired sequel with 1998's Babe: Pig in the City, which is also arguably better than the first movie in that franchise. Not that I'm making that argument, but Pig in the City is way better than people usually give it credit for and one of the better sequels you're likely to find. But if you want to entertain the notion that Miller is somehow very good at second movies, you'll also have to consider what he's done with Fury Road, which is quite possibly the best fourth movie in a franchise ever made.



"Best fourth movie ever," of course, doesn't really do Fury Road justice. Like The Road Warrior it is practically a silent movie, told with stunts, bold images, and dynamic camera, making use of vast rocky spaces. Fury Road is a simple tale of vectors. First the motley assortment of miscreants and their vehicles are going from here to there (specifically, to Gas Town for guzzoline). Then they veer off from their intended destination and go for another place, as a rebellion takes place among these unruly rebels. Then they realize that they must double back to their point of origin after all. Fury Road is thus triangle-shaped, describing lines from point A to point B, from point B to point C, and from point C to point A.

On that framework are hung all kinds of ingenious concepts, starting with the underpinning role of water in this postapocalyptic world. There are "war boys," the foot soldiers made up of irradiated young men who believe in a 27-virgins style of afterlife Valhalla. There are "blood bags," universal blood donors toted around live on missions to serve as field medical supplies when needed (that's our old friend Max's role here). There are "pole-men," who yaw around on flexible poles attached to vehicles to deliver incendiary devices at close range and even to snatch people out of moving vehicles. The picture is equal parts standard thriller auto chases, amazing stunt work, and dystopic vision of a brutalizing society. 

For sensation, my single favorite detail in all this is the rock and roll vehicle, a kind of adapted pickup truck with space for a pair of drummers in the back, tilted to the sky, and out in front a skeletal Slash-style figure playing a double-neck. The purpose of the vehicle appears to be mostly to provide a soundtrack. The music is not metal but closer to ambient, with a driving rhythm and whining electric guitar flourishes, barely heard over the roar of engines.

The surprise in Fury Road—though maybe not so surprising in 2015—is the self-conscious turn to feminist themes injected into the brawny cruel desert world. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron)—among other things, Fury Road also has some of the best character names ever, e.g., Nux, Slit, Rictus Erectus, Toast the Knowing, etc.—Imperator Furiosa is the driver who veers her massive truck away from the Gas Town run and confuses everyone in the escort. She is actually kidnapping a handful of concubines belonging to the tribe's warlord leader, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne in a scary mask), and taking them to freedom in the "Green Place," which is a place of legends that only may or may not exist in reality. Blood bag Max (Tom Hardy) is in many ways the designated hero again, and he generally gets top billing in the credits and posters and such—hey it's his franchise. But the reality is he plays second fiddle in most ways to Furiosa. She's smarter and better at most things than he is, and gets more screen time, but in a heartening way they both come to show a lot of respect for one another.

Furiosa belongs to a rebel band of women who are an obvious contrast with the concubines. These latter leggy beauties—yes, Miller is having it both ways here, but what do you do?—are more typically porny in their style, as kept women with shreds of clothing, even though they are intent on winning their freedom and can be surprisingly badass themselves. But Furiosa and Max are the main badasses around here, skidding off to the edge of nothing at point C before they realize they have to go back to the starting point and win the battle there.

The plot details are great window dressing—Fury Road is more the egalitarian postapocalyptic world we would choose if we had to over the original Mad Max, and all the reasons why are cunningly worked out—but the main point here is that this is a movie expressly made to sit and watch. Wide open eyes recommended. It moves fast, it tells you much of what you need to know through visuals and action, and it's full of amazing sights and sounds. It's a ne plus ultra of the action picture and almost effortlessly reminds us why we seek out action movies in the first place, taking us entirely out of ourselves. Nothing else exists, not even time, until it finishes. It's one way the movies are supposed to be done. Play loud.

3 comments:

  1. My choice as the best movie of the 2010s. Blood and Chrome version is interesting, too.

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  2. I like it a lot too but I think I lean toward Boyhood as best of the decade. And I think the Raid movies might top it for action thriller. Still great -- the b/w version looks like it might be worth chasing down, thanks!

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  3. I was put off the first time by the token feminist schtick, skeptical ab its motivations. But blown away the second time by Fury Road's sheer brutal thrill-ride visionary force. It's gotta be a successful video game w/ that point A to B to C setup, right? And "best fourth movie ever," love that. Hard to think of any even serious competition: The Dark Knight? (Actually, sixth in the series.) I'd hesitate to rank FR decade-wise only b/c I've seen so few. I used to feel behind by year, now I feel like I'm still trying to catch up w/ the 21st century. But this is an all-time instant classic action flick no doubt. Sharp review. -Skip D Expense

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