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Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

vehiclesDIRECTOR: George Miller

CAST: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Riley Keough, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoe Kravitz, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton

REVIEW:

In 1979, an Australian doctor-turned-director named George Miller made a low-budget movie called Mad Max that went on to make a star out of a then-unknown Mel Gibson and serve as inspiration for any number of post-apocalyptic and road chase movies in the decades since.  Miller followed up with 1981’s The Road Warrior and 1985’s Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.   In the interim, he directed such far more family-friendly fare as Babe and Happy Feet, but Mad Max was always his baby.  During the hiatus, Miller tried various times starting in 1998 to make the film which would eventually become Fury Road, but after several mis-starts, star Mel Gibson dropped out in 2003, feeling he was too old for the part but giving Miller his blessing to forge ahead without him.  In 2009, after several Australian actors (including the late Heath Ledger) unsuccessfully pursued or were considered for the title role, British actor Tom Hardy, at the time still a virtual unknown on this side of the Atlantic, officially stepped into Max’s boots.  Filming commenced in November 2011 but was forced to move from the Australian Outback (the filming location of every previous installment) when unexpected heavy rains transformed the desert into lush fields of wildflowers inappropriate for the look of the movie, relocating instead to Africa’s Namib Desert.  And now, after an arduous shoot and lengthy post-production, Fury Road has finally brought the long-dormant action franchise roaring back onto the big screen.  For many, the thirty-year gap between Beyond Thunderdome and Fury Road will be worth the wait.  By Miller’s own admission, this is the movie he would have made all along if he’d been able, and it is clear that this long-gestating project has been a labor of love.  Armed with a budget he could once only have dreamed of (reportedly approximately $150 million), Miller has given us a new adventure that is recognizably a Mad Max movie but also does its own thing.  Mad Max has returned with a bang.

In a post-apocalyptic desert environment where civilization has collapsed, water and gasoline are precious commodities worth killing for, and lawless gangs roam the wilderness, former cop turned lone drifter Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) wanders the wasteland eking out a survival.  Max has a bad day when he’s captured by a roving band of marauders who take him to “The Citadel”, stronghold of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a powerful warlord with a cult following of crazed minions and a fleet of vehicles at his disposal, who dominates the region by sitting on a large stockpile of clean water which he occasionally dispenses in tantalizingly small spurts to the masses groveling before him.  Joe has also enslaved the women as slaves churning out milk and babies, but his brainwashed “war boy” soldiers have short lifespans (due, it is implied, to radiation poisoning).  The War Boys are motivated by an Al Qaeda-esque fanaticism that sacrificing themselves in battle for Joe will earn them a place in Valhalla, and dependent on blood transfusions to keep going.  Max narrowly avoids being a “blood bag” for ailing War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult) when Joe is distracted by another problem.  One of his drivers, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), sent to resupply from a nearby settlement, uses the mission as cover to go rogue in her big rig with five of Joe’s harem girls (Riley Keough, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoe Kravitz, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton), in a desperate bid to smuggle both them and herself out of Joe’s clutches.  Joe and his army sets out in hot pursuit, with their prisoner Max dragged along for the ride.  Vehicular mayhem ensues, during which Max gets free and he and Furiosa are forced to become uneasy allies in the name of survival.

Fury Road hits the ground running almost immediately and spends all but a few minutes of the next two hours on the move, with Furiosa’s gang rarely leaving their big rig (even repairs are done on the go, with Furiosa holding on underneath).  It’s a fair statement that the car chases have always been what’s remembered the most about the Mad Max series, and Fury Road has been summed up by some as a souped-up, reworked version of The Road Warrior on steroids in which the road chase, rather than being the climactic action sequence, is the majority of the movie.  That’s not to say the movie is one uninterrupted 120 minute chase scene (which would have probably gotten tiresome), but the wheels rarely stop rolling.  Initially, the frenetic pace threatens to barrage us with an overwhelming fast-paced action extravaganza before we’ve gotten properly oriented to who Furiosa is and what she’s doing, but the characters—and the viewers—take a breather around half an hour in, and then Miller throws in just enough brief breaks in the action for the bare minimum necessary exposition and character development.  Exposition and background is bare bones and economical.  We get one scene where Furiosa opens up a little about her backstory, and Max is haunted by the ghosts of dead loved ones, but it’s kept as vague hints, just enough for us to understand the basics of what makes the characters tick.  As always in the series, the exact cause of the collapse of civilization is left vague and ambiguous (although fragments of news reports playing over the opening credits imply water and gasoline crises and nuclear bombings).  The dialogue is spare and terse, and nobody launches into any big emotional monologues.  Max and Furiosa are hard-nosed survivors with neither the time nor the inclination for a heart-to-heart.  Reportedly, Miller did not provide the actors with a conventional script, and instead storyboarded every scene of the movie, and the director is on record as saying he intended Fury Road to be a movie that people could watch and understand in Japan without having to read the subtitles.  That’s not to say it’s a silent movie, but the characters’ actions speak louder than their words.

In the original series, Miller showed talents for world-building and filming action sequences, and both abilities are on full display here.  It’s fascinating to note the level of small details that Miller has put into what on the surface might seem a simplistic film.  I was most intrigued by little quirky character bits, such as the two tumors protruding from Nux’s neck, whom he has named Larry and Barry and drawn smiley faces on, and the bit late in the movie where Max marks a map with his own blood.  Miller also shows artistic flair, making the daytime scenes colorful and the night scenes bathed in a picturesque deep blue.  As for the action sequences, unsurprisingly considering the far expanded budget and the general advances in technology and stuntwork since 1985, they are bigger and more extreme than ever.  Miller even hired acrobats from Cirque du Soleil for the nifty stuntwork of War Boys swaying on tall poles suspended from the backs of trucks, from which they attempt to swoop down and snatch up the girls like divebombing eagles. Miller insisted on keeping CGI to a minimum, relying predominantly on the practical effects the series has always showcased, and the sight of real cars getting smashed and stuntmen going flying ups the ante a little when so many modern big summer movies are CGI extravaganzas.  There is only one major CGI sequence about twenty minutes into the movie, as Furiosa and pursuers drive through a massive sandstorm, and the rest is used inconspicuously for little touches like a two-headed lizard in the opening scene, or digitally editing out Charlize Theron’s left arm, which is replaced with a mechanical prosthetic limb.

Miller also avoids various cliches.  While the Fast & Furious series features stunts that are over-the-top to the point of being physically impossible, such as cars diving out of airplanes, drivers in their seats, and hitting the ground running, the stunts in Fury Road, as wild as they are, mostly at least stay within the laws of physics, and its characters don’t have the superhuman invincibility of the Fast & Furious heroes.  Max might be a tough survivor, but he’s not Superman (in fact, he’s captured within the first couple minutes and spends the whole opening act as a prisoner, either hanging upside down or as a hood ornament on Nux’s car).  Likewise, Furiosa is not an indestructible warrior woman, but an ordinary woman who has been forced to grow tough to survive.  Romance and/or sex between male and female leads are often all but inevitable in action movies, but Max and Furiosa’s relationship stays completely platonic and born of pragmatism and necessity, not attraction.  Max is also initially a less-than-noble figure.  He’s always been a reluctant hero, but Hardy’s Max is even less friendly than Gibson’s, and gets dragged (literally) into other people’s problems even more grudgingly.  In fact, his first move upon encountering Furiosa and the girls is to try to steal their rig and strand them, and it takes a while for he and Furiosa’s “partnership” to get to the point where they can work together without holding each other at gunpoint.  And this is not as simple as the big strong man coming to the rescue of helpless women either.  Furiosa can go toe-to-toe with Max as every bit of an equal, and late in the movie, our crew is joined by a tribe of gun-toting female warriors who do their share of buttkicking.  These women can do their own rescuing.  Even Immortan Joe’s runaway “wives”, while sheltered and inexperienced, aren’t completely helpless.

Mad-Max-Fury-Road-23This isn’t an actor’s movie, but Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron are reliable enough screen presences to anchor this trip into vehicular mayhem.  Hardy’s Mad Max puts more emphasis on the “Mad” part, more edgy, more brutish, and more feral than Gibson’s ever was, but overall not radically far removed from his predecessor (it’s a bit comparable to the difference between, say, Sean Connery and Daniel Craig as James Bond, with Connery/Gibson the iconic original and Craig/Hardy the gritty, edgy reboot).  Hardy doesn’t attempt a Mel Gibson impression, but he’s easy to accept as Max, perhaps partly because it’s been thirty years since Mel Gibson last played the part, partly because Max has never been an especially three-dimensional character.  He’s the Western archetype of the man with no name, the dark stranger of the prairie riding in out of nowhere to help the pilgrims escape the bandits, transplanted into a post-apocalyptic setting, and isn’t much of a stretch out of the laconic hard-ass Hardy’s become associated with in recent years.  Hardy has enough screen presence that he’s not completely overshadowed by Charlize Theron, but at times he seems content to take the passenger seat (literally) and let Theron lead the way.  The movie may be titled “Mad Max”, but Theron’s Furiosa is less a supporting role than a co-lead.  In some ways, this is more Furiosa’s story than Max’s, since it’s her rescue mission that drives the action, with Max along for the ride.  Theron thoroughly downplays her glamorous image, shaving her head, sporting a mechanical arm, and covered in dirt and grime (though she’s still more attractive here than in her Oscar-winning role in Monster).  Theron’s performance is about as good as it can be within the limitations of the material; she’s believable as an ass-kicking action heroine while retaining a core of humanity.  Despite their reported onset head-butting, Hardy and Theron play effectively off each other as Max and Furiosa’s dynamic shifts from adversaries to uneasy allies and finally into true teamwork and camaraderie.

The only other cast member who makes an impression is an almost unrecognizable Nicholas Hoult, whose Nux starts out as a maniacally gung-ho War Boy but turns out to have the most extreme character arc of anyone in the movie.  Nux starts out as an entertainingly over-the-top villainous henchman (his gleeful cry of “oh, what a day!  what a lovely day!” became one of the movie’s main promotional taglines), but the character eventually turns out to have more poignancy than we expect.  Riley Keough, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoe Kravitz, Abbey Lee, and Courtney Eaton don’t have a lot demanded of them besides being the most beautiful women in the apocalypse.  The only returning series veteran is Australian actor Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter in the original film in 1979, although most aren’t likely to recognize him here as Immortan Joe, his face hidden behind a fearsome mask and speaking in a booming amplified voice, vaguely recalling both The Road Warrior‘s Lord Humongous and The Dark Knight Rises‘ Bane (who was, of course, played by none other than Tom Hardy).  Immortan Joe isn’t long on character development, but he’s creepy-looking and relentless enough to make a serviceable villain, even if apart from the quick opening scenes, his role basically consists of doggedly chasing our heroes around like a more menacing Wile E. Coyote.

It’s up in the air where, if anywhere, Fury Road lands in the series chronology, and there is at least one clear deviation from the original, in changing Max’s dead child from an infant son to a young daughter (whose specter regularly flashes before his eyes), leaving it ambiguous how much Fury Road is connected to the original trilogy.  It has been variously referred to as a reboot, sequel, or its own individual entity.  That doesn’t really matter, since each Mad Max installment has essentially been a stand-alone episode anyway.  There is some thin connective tissue–Tom Hardy wears the same leg brace Mel Gibson sported in The Road Warrior–but Fury Road stands on its own in some ambiguous middle ground between straight sequel and clean-slate reboot.  Familiarity with the original series, while adding context to some bits, is not strictly necessary.

Fury Road throws in numerous Easter eggs and callbacks for fans of the original series, especially The Road Warrior, some more obvious than others.  The opening car chase recalls the Interceptor crash in The Road Warrior.  The music box from The Road Warrior (or one just like it) makes an appearance.  Max is strapped, almost crucifixion-style, to the front of Nux’s car in an identical pose to the way Lord Humongous’ gang displayed their victims.  Furiosa’s big rig bears a probably-not-coincidental resemblance to the one Max drove in the climactic car chase in The Road Warrior, right down to the plow on its front.

vlcsnap-2015-03-31-16h36m12s38While the series attracts fans of vehicular mayhem, Fury Road won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.  The campy weirdness which has been present, in greater or lesser degrees, in every installment, has been dialed up to 10 here, and like everything else, is firing on all cylinders.  There are morbidly obese women constantly pumping out milk for the War Boys, Joe’s seemingly inbred sons, one a deformed midget and the other a monstrously towering and muscular giant (Nathan Jones), and an encounter with a gang of mountain-dwelling bikers who dress like Jawas and drive spiked cars that look like porcupines on wheels.  Given the chance to wed imagination to budget, Miller pulls out all the stops and throws the kitchen sink at the screen.  There’s a Chevy Chevelle mounted on tank treads, and, in grandiose supervillain fashion, Immortan Joe travels accompanied by his personal theme music, including drummers continually pounding tribal war drums and a grotesquely deformed guitarist wailing on a fire-spewing electric guitar.  Whether you find all this entertaining or ridiculous (or entertainingly ridiculous, or ridiculously entertaining) probably depends on how much the off-kilter, over-the-top Mad Max world appeals to you.  Taken on its own merits, Fury Road is flawed.  The frenetic pace makes some aspects feel rushed, especially early on, and certain plot aspects would have held more poignancy if they’d been allowed to breathe more.  Some viewers will find the movie initially confusing, as it plunges them headlong into the action and leaves them to figure out as they go what’s actually happening and why, and Nux’s about-face could have benefited from another scene or two.  Miller occasionally applying a sped-up effect to the action (which he also used in the original series) is overdone and sometimes distracting.  Max haunted by the specter of his dead daughter who pops up at regular intervals is a heavy-handed plot device that feels like an on-the-nose character development shortcut.  The movie arguably blows its wad in its first hour or so, with the chase kicking off with a “throw the kitchen sink” sequence involving Furiosa in fast-and-furious fender benders with both Immortan Joe’s pursuing armada and the mountain bandits, and then everyone plunging headlong into a massive sandstorm, so that by the time we get to the climactic battle royale which occupies the whole ending half hour or so, as elaborately and skillfully choreographed as it may be, we’re starting to overdose on vehicular bedlam.  Personally, while it’s comparatively simple and low-key (“comparatively” being a key word), I’m partial to the canyon chase midway through with Max and Furiosa forced to work together for the first time to defend the big rig against a gang of mountain bikers.  It has a nicely old-school, no-frills “stagecoach versus Indians” vibe, with no CGI or special effects, and it marks the point in the action when Max and Furiosa start pointing their guns at people besides each other.

But none of its relatively minor flaws prevent Mad Max: Fury Road from being a blast of wildly over-the-top, hyperkinetic fun that roars into the crowded summer blockbuster season like a wrecking ball.  This is big, loud, high-octane entertainment that whisks the viewer along at breakneck speed and barely lets them catch their breath before blasting back into action.  If you’re a fan of the Mad Max franchise, or just of vehicular carnage, it’s worth revving your engine for Fury Road.

* * * 1/2

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