Monday, May 18, 2015

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD Is an Unforgettable Ride


- What is it about the classic genre films of the 80's that made them so iconic - still able to captivate our collective imagination today? I think the answer lies with the visionary directors who brought us those films. Thirty years ago, directors like Spielberg, Lucas, Donner, Carpenter, Verhoeven, Cameron, Scott, Milius, and Miller gave us memorable, iconoclastic films that felt like triumphs of the imagination. Today, most big-budget blockbusters feel assembled by committee. They're designed to be, above all, four-quadrant crowd-pleasers. Rarely are today's biggest movies allowed to get extreme, or weird, or to be disturbing and challenging. But MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is a welcome anomaly. Here we have the legendary George Miller returning to his iconic Road Warrior universe - not just for a victory lap or a nostalgia-driven cash-in, but for a movie that feels as vital, as urgent, and as singular as anything the director has yet produced in his storied career. The movie is in many ways a minor miracle - a blast of adrenaline-fueled badassery that absolutely refuses to conform to modern blockbuster convention. Ironically, that rebellious, rock n' roll mentality makes FURY ROAD feel fresher and more avant-garde than any mainstream action movie in years. It's a must-see new classic. A movie that at once feels like a throwback to the glory days of badass 80's genre films and like something we've never quite seen before.

What's so incredible about FURY ROAD is how Miller effortlessly tells a story, gives us memorable characters, and gives us a fully-fleshed-out post-apocalyptic universe despite the film essentially being one giant, action-packed chase scene. So many genre films tend to be over-expository. But FURY ROAD masterfully gives us exactly what we need via some brilliantly economical storytelling. This is an exaggerated, larger-than-life world. And so must its characters be mythical and iconic. And such is Max. Tom Hardy brings the character to stoic life. He is this film's Man With No Name. At the start of the movie, he's literally been stripped of his humanity; captured by the feral minions of the tyrannical Immortan Joe - his "warboys" - and made into a human plasma-source, a "blood-bank." As the film progresses and Max eventually frees himself of his shackles, he slowly begins to regain a sense of identity. Hardy makes for a great Max. His gruff stoicism and survival-mode brutality slowly give way to some semblance of empathy and sense of purpose. Hardy continues to be one of the best actors around, and Max is a natural fit for him. He truly gives him the sort of mythical icon status befitting of Miller's vision.

But really, this isn't Max's movie. For in truth, the film belongs to Charlize Theron's grit-filled, can't-stop/won't-stop, badass-for-the-ages Imperator Furiosa. Furiosa, a lieutenant of Joe, has been secretly smuggling slaves out of his fortress-like city, The Citadel. Now, she's on a desperate escape mission, making off with one of Joe's big-rigs, transporting a cargo of Joe's "wives" - female sex slaves meant to carry Joe's unholy offspring. Headed through the barren Wasteland in hopes of reaching a mythical Green Place, Furiosa is pursued by a battalion of Joe's ravenous warboys, as well as Joe himself. That's when she crosses paths with Max, who's been chained to one of Joe's souped-up battle-vehicles and finds himself unwillingly along on the hunt for Furiosa. Theron kills it. Seemingly channeling the spirit of Sigourney Weaver in the Alien films, Theron as Furiosa is bald, one-armed (she's got a metal prosthetic), steely-eyed, and certifiably awesome-sauce. She gives the character a quietly desperate intensity and inner rage that makes her downright scary at times. And in the few quiet moments allowed to her, we also see the long-simmering pain. We know she's witnessed atrocities and likely participated in some as well. Now, she seeks some measure of redemption. No question though - Furiosa is a cinematic icon for the ages.

What makes Max and Furiosa's adventure so harrowing is the fact that Miller crafts an army of unrelenting antagonists that is the stuff of pure sci-fi nightmares. Immortan Joe - played by Hugh Keays-Byrne - is instantly the stuff of villainous legend. A hulking figure clad in imposing body-armor and a skull-shaped, tusk-lined mantle, Joe is a grotesque Big Bad who will stop at nothing to retrieve his stolen "wives" and destroy those who dared oppose his will. His army is also suitably over-the-top: a motley crew of murderers and would-be martyrs. His warboys are convinced that dying for Joe will mean an eternity in Valhalla. And so they throw themselves into danger with animalistic abandon. Most intriguing of Joe's warriors is
Nicholas Hoult's Nux - an overeager foot soldier who begins to have a crisis of conscience, when he realizes that his great leader may not be quite as worthy of fighting and dying for as he'd believed.

All of FURY ROAD's relentless action is filmed with absolutely gorgeous flair by Miller. Though things unfold with fast and furious intensity, Miller never falls prey to the sort of disruptive quick-cutting and shaky visuals that make other blockbusters feel visually incomprehensible. What strikes me about the film is just how painterly the whole thing feels. Amidst the chaotic action and nonstop adrenaline-rush, there are countless individual moments of near awe-inspiring beauty and jaw-dropping imagination. Oh, Miller's vision is often cartoonishly over-the-top, to be sure. But what glorious over-the-topness it is. One of my favorite recurring visuals was that of the awesomely absurd musical section of Joe's battalion - a multi-story vehicle carrying war-drummers followed by a mobile stage on which a suspended, seemingly rabid warboy plays a continuous electric guitar-solo - a heavy metal symphony of destruction if ever there was one. It's an apt visual, as Miller's vehicular action plays like a post-apocalyptic symphony - the action orchestrated via choreography that's downright musical in the way it elegantly unfolds. In the film's climactic battle - as warboys pole-vault between vehicles while Furiosa and Max make a desperate last-stand, the sheer chaotic beauty of the action is just overwhelmingly awesome. There are smaller, quieter moments sprinkled throughout the movie in which Miller will pause on a particularly striking visual. But even when the action is at its most intense, Miller still takes care to give us consistently beautiful brutality.

Amidst all of the nonstop action, Miller infuses FURY ROAD with a simple but effective tale of finding hope and redemption - of the triumph of the human spirit when things look bleakest. There is a feminist undercurrent as well, as Miller's story is largely about women fighting against a patriarchy that treats them as a resource to be exploited as opposed to equals to be respected. In many ways, the film reminded me of "journey" movies like Gravity - a deceptively simple but thematically complex parable about the human spirit's ability to overcome even the most seemingly hopeless of situations. I could go on, but suffice it to say that FURY ROAD has a lot going on between the lines, and a lot of substance to unpack and discuss. Miller clearly has a lot on his mind with this movie. In many ways, it feels like he finally struck at the heart of what he's wanted to say since the first Mad Max film. As such, while this film feels like something new, like something not tied or bound to Mad Max or The Road Warrior or Beyond Thunderdome, it also feels like a fitting conclusion to this universe and a fitting goodbye for Max. Miller takes us into the abyss, but here, finally, we can see some light at the end of the tunnel. Max was never a savior, only a victim of (and sometime hero because of) circumstance. But here, Furiosa steps in as the woman the world needs. Max just gives her the final nudge to do what needs to be done.

Oftentimes even the best modern blockbusters succeed by hitting various pleasure centers in the brain, checking off boxes and generally presenting us with a fun roller-coaster ride. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is one hell of a roller-coaster ride. But it's also the kind of blockbuster you don't see much of anymore - the kind that seeps deep into the recesses of your brain and fires up the synapses and sparks the imagination and really *sticks*. It's the kind of movie that isn't trying to please everyone, that dares to be weird and gross and dark and sort of insane. And man, we could use more like it. We could use more directors like George Miller. We could use more movies like FURY ROAD. 

My Grade: A

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