Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
THE DIRECTOR George Miller
THE ACTORS Tom Hardy (Max Rockatansky), Charlize Theron (Imperator Furiosa), Nicholas Hoult (Nux), Hugh Keays-Byrne (Immortan Joe), Nathan Jones (Rictus Erectus), Zoe Kravitz (Toast the Knowing), Rosie Huntington-Whitely (The Splendid Angharad), Riley Keough (Capable), Abby Lee (The Dag), Courtney Eaton (Cheedo the Fragile), John Howard (The People Eater), Richard Carter (The Bullet Farmer), Iota (The Doof Warrior), Angus Sampson (The Organic Mechanic), Josh Helman (Slit)
THE CAUSE Fuel Shortage/Societal Breakdown/World War III/Nuclear War
THE STORY "My name is Max. My world is fire and blood. Once, I was a cop. A road warrior searching for a righteous cause. As the world fell, each of us in our own way was broken. It was hard to know who was more crazy... me... or everyone else." - Max, Opening Narration.
THE RUNDOWN Continuing my rundown of doomsday films I saw in 2015, let's talk about the best movie of the year. (Yes it is, you're wrong. I'm sorry it had to be me that told you.) For those who don't recall, I reviewed the previous three Mad Max movies in the lead-up to this film's release, but I didn't review it at the time. I like to give movies a little time to simmer in my brain and I've witnessed with my own eyes the way the magic of the cinema can polish a turd on initial viewing. Make no mistake, on the big screen is the absolute best way to see a movie but the really good ones are still good once you're watching it on your forty year-old Magnavox in your old bedroom at your mom's house. Even if I didn't have my "no premiers" policy, I still wouldn't have reviewed Mad Max: Fury Road on initial release because even then I knew that there was no way any further viewings of that movie could ever live up to that first adrenaline-fueled showing.
I have seen a great many movies in theaters and there have been some memorable feelings associated with those: the creeping dread I felt from seeing Darkness Falls (a dark room with surround sound is the essential way to see that movie), the "how is this a real movie and not something I just imagined" feeling I got watching Slither, the awestruck amazement at seeing that iconic text crawl on the big screen for the first time in my life with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but Mad Max was my greatest cinema experience ever.
Right after the title screen appeared the movie just built momentum like crazy going forward at such a gradually quickening pace that it wasn't until the scene after the sand storm that I realized how tense I was. I felt like I had been holding my breath for twenty minutes and then after a brief breather of a character scene the movie takes off again. It was a hurricane of sights and sounds and I left the theater dazed and awestruck. This was a movie that would endure, this was a movie that would become legend. Had I attempted to get the sludgy pile of burnt synapses I called a brain to form my thoughts into words for a review I would have had to find a way to convey girlish squeals of delight and car crash noises into text. There was no way I could formulate a coherent, much less fair, opinion of this movie. So I waited for the disc and while I was excited to see the movie for the second time I must confess that I was feeling a lot of trepidation about seeing this without that magic in the air but I popped it in the blu-ray player (after re-watching the previous three films to put myself back in the mindframe I was in when I reviewed those three.)
I was right, my second viewing of Fury Road wasn't nearly as magical, exciting, or fun as my first but I think I enjoyed it more in the sober setting of my living room. The spectacle is still amazing but now that the dew was off of that particular rose I was able to stop and really look at this movie with my fancy reviewer's eye and fully come to appreciate the craftsmanship on display.
The plot is so amazingly simple that even in an obscenely detailed synopsis of it could probably fit on the back of a DVD box. A warlord named Immortan Joe controls a huge fresh-water source in the middle of a vast irradiated desert. As such Joe has become God-Emperor to a group of poor wretched souls who hang around waiting for the few seconds of water he sends roaring down into the canyon below him each day. On the day of this movie one of his trusted soldiers, a one-armed warrior woman named Furiosa, is taking The War Rig (a massive hot-rod semi-truck) over to the neighboring establishments of Gas Town and The Bullet Farm to trade fuel, fresh water, produce, and breast milk for ammunition and gasoline. Furiosa has decided to use this little supply run to make her escape, taking Joe's stable of healthy and beautiful "wives" (read: breeding concubines) to her childhood home; a place of lush vegetation which she calls "The Green Place." Max comes into this story as a slave kidnapped at the beginning of the movie to be used for blood transfusions to Joe's lymphoma-suffering boy soldiers, The War Boys. Nux, one of the aforementioned War Boys, is in bad need of a blood transfusion but wants to go out in a blaze of glory helping to apprehend Furiosa so he straps Max to the front of his car and heads out into the wasteland in pursuit.
What follows is a whirlwind of violence, car crashes, explosions, and gunfire that should really feel cheap and stupid, but instead feels deep and rich. George Miller has always been good at spinning proverbial straw into gold, his talking pig and dancing penguin movies are surprisingly good for such affairs, but what he pulls off here is some manner of sorcery. Mad Max is filled with dumb grunting machismo bullshit, but it doesn't feel like that and not because there's some wink or nudge acknowledging that it's all a bit silly; as a matter of fact the movie plays every bit of casual absurdity with nearly straight-faced seriousness. Any movie can have a giant speaker-laden truck covered in Taiko drummers and a man in long-underwear playing a flamethrower guitar but not only does Fury Road brazenly have that, it makes the presence of such an absurd thing seem sensible. Every bit of Joe's fiefdom is carefully crafted to lionize himself and to glorify violence and sacrifice to him. His War Boys worship V8 engines and explosives, the aforementioned guitar player gets their blood pumping as they ride into battle, he has convinced them that their deaths will carry more meaning if they die in battle defending his ideals and has even imprinted upon them a ceremony in which they spray their mouths with chrome spray paint before committing a final suicidal act which will usher them into the gates of Valhalla.
And while the movie does make sure to point out how silly Joe and his boy soldiers (and his man-child son Rictus) are, contrasting them with Furiosa and Joe's "wives", it never dips into parody. After all, Furiosa is cut from the same cloth as the womens' pursuers and without the War Boy Nux, they all would perish several times over. The film famously involved a consultation with feminist Gloria Steinem and its feminist agenda has been the rallying cry for a sea of crybaby man-boys who can't accept the concept that rampant masculinity can be toxic and that women can be more than set dressing. I don't want this to veer too far into thinkpiece territory, I just want to point out how stupid that ideology is. I'm not sure why Mad Max has become associated with a certain type of knuckle-dragging machismo because from the first film this series has been deconstructing that tough-guy crap: In the first movie Goose gets messed up because he tries to play alpha male against Toecutter and his gang, Max gets his knee blown off for going out for revenge instead of staying with his wife and helping her to heal and get over the death of their son, only Jessie has any real sense and yes she dies but she was put in a situation that is beyond her control. Similarly in the second film, Max decides to lone wolf it and gets wrecked and beaten for his trouble, and the third film skewers Master's power trip and shows the naive Savannah to be much less foolish than the jaded Max. Maybe the films haven't necessarily been feminist per se but they're far from the masculine power trip movies that many make them out to be.
Similarly the complaint that Max gets second billing in his own movie is also dumb. These movies have never been about Max Rockatansky, not even the one that was his introductory story. They've been about his best friend, his wife, a group of pilgrims searching for the promised land, and a cargo cult of wide-eyed children seeking hope. Max has no rich story or character but rather the illusion of such, his strength is that he's a blank slate on which the audience can lay their own emotions. Max has no purpose in life beyond fixing up his car, he has no mission. Dr. Dealgood had Max pegged, he's the man with no name and when Pappagallo took him to task for being a man stumbling through life without a reason for living, he was right. Max is a "terminal crazy" just like everyone else, he just has a conscience that springs up when people on a righteous mission need help. He couldn't carry his own story and he never will.
The story this time is about Furiosa, and about Joe's wives. It's a story about redemption, freedom, and the cost of war, and while the plot itself is anemically simple, there is a vast layered depth to the whole thing. This movie is like a table that has sculpted out of a solid block of wood, oh sure it's a simple and utilitarian affair at first glance but as you start to realize the work and craft that went into it you begin to see how meticulously formed and beautiful it is. Fury Road fits the three act structure roughly but its feel is more meandering and poetic, the structure of this film is less that of a play or movie and more of a concert.
We have the brief opening number that previews the tone of the full piece and then we segue into a rousing opening number, back off into a quieter number, and then blast through with something even more stirring and charismatic. Fury Road is an orchestral arrangement told in pictures and it washes over you. The entire film could be completely free of dialogue and it would still feel poignant and meaningful all while being as gritty and rough and tumble.
Every performance is just the right blend of dark, funny, serious, and over-the-top. The characters know when to be somber and when to be theatrical and the film can be humorous and bleak at the same time. The epitome of this is a scene in the middle of the film where Max wanders off into some fog to dispatch a pursuer, we hear automatic fire and see a large explosion and Max wanders back into camp carrying an armload of guns and covered in blood. He goes to wash the blood off at the tanker, dipping his hands into a bucket hanging off one of the valves and asks what's in it, one of the women tells him it's breast milk and he just begins splashing it on his face without. The scene is cool, it's funny, it's gross, it's got thematic elements you can dig into or you can just ignore them and that really works on the film as a whole. You can take this movie at face value or look into its deeper corners, no matter what setting you put your microscope on, Fury Road has something to see and that's kind of amazing.
I also must congratulate George Miller because he has packed this movie full of random callbacks to previous films and somehow it never feels hokey or forced. Admittedly he has always done this with these movies, there are things that "rhyme" about each of the Rockatansky films and while they share similarities they are all individual movies with different feelings and tones. As much as Fury Road is similar to The Road Warrior they are still vastly different movies in the same way that Road Warrior and Thunderdome are similar but different and that too is amazing.
Furiosa is our hero and while she's not my favorite protagonist of these movies (it's gonna take a lot to unseat Savannah Nix) she's pretty great. She manages to be tough and vulnerable in a way that never tips her scale too far into "powderpuff" or "strong female character" territory. She's tough and takes the forefront of all the action, going so far as to score the first non-Max antagonist kill, without throwing Max under the bus. Similarly when she's vulnerable and Max has to save her it doesn't feel like it is at the expense of her character. There's no attempt to shoe-horn in a romantic subplot or any kind of sexuality at all between the two, they are powerful wasteland warriors and that's all that Max and Furiosa seem to care about. The wives similarly could just be set dressing but each has her own unique personality, and even the timid scared one has her character moment. I have a hard time keeping their names straight but I know each character for who she is.
I have mixed feelings about Immortan Joe. Though he has a rich concept and I love how gross and fake he is, along with his mini-boss cohorts The People Eater and The Bullet Farmer, and don't mind that he's really just a mishmash of all the heavies from previous films (he's mostly Humungus, but there's a little bit of Toecutter and Aunty Entity in there as well) I do feel that Hugh Keays-Byrne was a bit wasted in the role.
Now lets talk about the topics on everyone's mind: Tom Hardy and is this film a remake, a reboot, or a sequel? First lets talk Tom. Time, money, and a mouth that just refuses to stop saying awful things disqualified series mainstay Mel Gibson from reprising the role of Max this time. Tom Hardy does a fine job in Mel's place, conveying the same tough-as-nails but slightly goofy character that Gibson did though it feels somewhat different for reasons I can't quite put my finger on. I will say that my one big gripe with Hardy is that he's obviously not Australian, he occasionally manages to sound like Mel but frequently goes off into a Christoper Lambert voice, a Thomas Jane voice, and whatever accent Bane used in The Dark Knight Rises. I found it somewhat distracting and I hope Hardy can nail the voice a bit better next time, it doesn't have to be perfect but it should be more consistent.
Now, this is obviously a reboot, right? I mean the Interceptor, which the mechanic said was the last of the V8 Interceptor' ,appears in this film despite being blown up in the second one. And it can't be pre-Road Warrior because the Interceptor in this movie gets torn up too, right? But if this is a new timeline then why does Max still have the battle damage he acquired in the first two films (he didn't get torn up enough in Thunderdome to aqcuire any new scars or clothing damage.) Well, shortly after the release of the film DC comics put out a four-issue comic series that told prequel stories. We learned how Joe came to be in charge of the water, how Nux became a War Boy, and how and why Furiosa decided to abscond with the wives. But we also learned how Max came to where he is at the start of the film.
The first thing the comic tells us is a truncated version of Max's story, acknowledging the events of all three films with panels depicting scenes from them. It would seem that Max has spent the last 20 years or so trying to rebuild his car and at the beginning of the comic he has all but an engine. So where does he find a V8 for the Pursuit Special (Interceptors were the yellow police cars, dammit)? Why in Thunderdome of course! It would seem that after the fall of Bartertown, Doctor Dealgood took Thunderdome on the road although he has modified it to be a free-for-all deathmatch against various opponents for a prize, in this case a V8 engine.
Max wins the match with the help of a lady spectator who approaches him after he has had his prize taken by the weird raiders in the spike vehicles we see in the movie and asks him to help her get back her daughter. The daughter is being held prisoner by the spiky Tusken Raiders and after he saves the girl and her mother and does his usual ride-off-into-the-sunset routine he witnesses the mother and daughter get pancaked by one of the raiders out for blood. The daughter is the girl we see repeatedly appear in Max's hallucinations and is not the replacement for Sprog as many had assumed.
So how does this add up with the timeline? Well we know that the second movie happened two years after the first one and that the third movie took place fifteen years after that. Mel Gibson was 22 when the first film was made and if we go by the general rule that everyone in movies is playing someone a few years younger than them we can say Max was about 19 or 20 at the time of the first film (that certainly puts his behavior into perspective) so by the time he saves The Waiting Ones, Max is 37. There is no given time-frame for how much later this movie takes place but lets say five years so that would make Max 42. This would also account for the roughly twenty years that Furiosa was imprisoned by Joe, if we assume she was taken at 8 then she would be in her thirties. Of course this doesn't account for Max losing the grey patches in his hair or the sudden introduction of radiation into the mix with part 3 but this has always been a series of subtle reinvention, what's important is that this movie still works as both a straight sequel and a standalone film just like all the others.
I love this movie. I love its characters, I love its cast, I love its music, its action, its drama, even the parts I'm critical of are insignificant in comparison to the things I love. Mad Max Fury Road is an amazing damn movie and it will go on to influence films for decades to come, it really is incredible to be on the ground level as a movie joins the great cinema hall of champions and though I know it likely won't win Oscars for best film and best director it damn well deserves to. What a film. What a lovely film.
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