13 May 2015

Review: Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, USA,/Aus, 2015)


Before embarking down “Fury Road” I tasked myself with revisiting the franchise's previous installments, starting with 1979's “Mad Max”. After 40 minutes I abandoned the project. Looking back at director George Miller's first foray into apocalyptic, Australian carnage, one sees a lot to admire, but little to captivate, the film harshly dated thanks to 35 years of genre evolution. I consider myself a lover of cinema spanning the breadth of history, but sometimes, you just gotta admit when a movie ain't playing. With its simplistic plotting, delayed emotional payload and interchangeable supporting thugs “Mad Max” is an antique rather than something with any pragmatic use in the current climate. Which makes “Mad Max: Fury Road” all the more exciting. A lean, demented journey, this fourth outing in the series might be the hippest film directed by an old guy since“The Wolf of Wall Street” (George Miller is now going on 70). It's a barmy but appreciatively forward thinking cocktail of grungy, sun-drenched mania, a molasses of new technology and character, all captured within a stripped down narrative aesthetic worthy of the original's B-movie persuasion.

The year is 2060 and the world is in pieces. Max (Tom Hardy) wanders a barren stretch of baked wilderness known as the Wasteland, haunted by the ghosts of his deceased family. After being captured by a race of mutants known as War Boys, Max bands up with Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a revolutionary seeking to free five captive women from the rule of the War Boys' leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Escaping in an armoured rig; Max, Furiosa and the wives propel toward the harmonious promise of a homeland untouched by death, pursued with relentless vigour by Joe and his army of savages.

Last year I criticised “Godzilla” for relegating its titular hero to the level of cameo player. “Mad Max: Fury Road” does much the same, but this time it's a move that empowers the material. Hardy grunts and carries himself with physical grace, but “Fury Road” belongs to its women, a cast of ladies diverse in age, but wholly capable of kicking butt. Back in 2011 the film actually had Furiosa as a subtitle, before ditching it in favour of the more commercial “Fury Road”. An understandable adjustment in a “Fast & Furious” marketplace, but Theron's liberator is profoundly more thrilling than any haggard, stretch of asphalt. The actress goes head to head with Hardy in the brooding stakes, but her character's motivations are richer (one of the movie's few overt failings is to colour Max's backstory with anything fresh), and her struggle to deliver the breeders to paradise more interesting. Whilst the action manages to blend hysteria with coherency, the women are what really set “Fury Road” apart. They're all (including the reappearance of Megatron's least favourite gal pal Rosie Huntington-Whiteley - actually putting her angelic countenance to fine use here) active, unique agents within the construct, Miller and his co-writers displaying nothing but eagerness to have them supersede Max at the movie's centre. Thematically “Fury Road” amounts to a loud rejection of Hollywood's traditional gender bias, and patriarchy itself, transforming its cast of wives from biological vessels of consumption (used for sex and reproduction) into formidable heroines. Superficially “Fury Road” has the wives respond to Furiosa's charge, muscling into a masculine territory with increased competency, but the feature also underlines the delicate beauty of female identity (as opposed to the rowdy din of man), casting its morally sound, beautifully presented wives as pillars of virtue, compassion and reason. No male presence in the feature displays the same rationality or decency, even Hardy.

The action is phenomenally well staged. It's exciting, daringly choreographed and filled with weight. Every crunch, scream and explosion registers with impact, the sort only balls out practical effects allow for. The opening, a manic chase through sandstorms and desert perhaps goes on for too long, but it sets a frenzied tone the picture honours diligently, and later beats are equally as bombastic, whilst anchored in a more obviously humanist agenda. Comics and videogames influence the distinctively graded frames and cacophonous set-pieces, filtered through a fearsome R-rated aesthetic. The movie isn't excessively violent, but fists land with WALLOPS and viscera spurts in big, dirty heaves. Miller isn't afraid to absorb the setting and hold on its organic composition, even the sandy dunes feel rich with texture, or point toward weird little touches outside of the central chase. There's no requirement for “Fury Road” to unfurl in a fully realised universe, but Miller provides us with one anyway. That's how seriously he's taking the journey, and indicative of how complete it feels.

It's an exhausting flick, but “Fury Road” is all about pleasure over punishment. The sensory overload - including a score courtesy of Junkie XL which sounds like a Chumbawamba cover via Trent Reznor - drains your reserves, providing a cathartic hit akin to a subversive Space Mountain. Maybe Miller would rebuke a reading of the film that delves too deeply into any perceived political subtext, so I'll leave you on a final thought. Maybe, one day, in an ideal world, this film with its complex heroines, progressive attitude and daring action will play like “Mad Max” circa 1979. Dated and routine.

Wouldn't that be just lovely?

Except, any movie where Charlize Theron triumphantly rips a baddie's face off is never going to feel routine. But you get the picture.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2015


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