Movie review: “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015)

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“If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die historic on a fury road!”

I am a man who loves his adjectives, and, as a film and concertgoer (and general pop culture participant/enthusiast/reviewer/critic), someone who also, I think, chooses, deploys, and wields them with not a little facility. After thirty years of semi-serious or better moviegoing, I feel, on some level, that I’ve seen it all before, and lately it feels I’ve described a good deal of it to boot. Standard, shopworn superlatives shrink in the face of an uncompromised, uncompromising, full-tilt action odyssey like Mad Max: Fury Road, however. They feel laughably inadequate, and frustratingly incomplete. They burst into the same sort of flames director/writer/creator George Miller uses so often as visual punctuation, or else shrivel and blow away harmlessly into his vast desert setting, a merciless wasteland that, even in a film absolutely teeming with desperate, violent, flamboyant life, is still Fury Road’s most important and, at times, unforgettable character. Miller’s fourth anthropological expedition into post-apocalyptic Australia – a trek which, for the record, also included, in 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and 1981’s The Road Warrior, one of the creative high water marks and oddball cultural signifiers of 1980s cinema and one of the universally acclaimed greatest action movies ever, respectively – seeks the near impossible feat of outdoing his previous trilogy combined, and, even more amazingly, comes damned close to pulling it all off. It is altogether fitting that a film whose practical concerns are freeing captives and ferrying slaves to a better tomorrow should be so philosophically hell bent against taking prisoners.

Think of a movie ticket as a contract. Implicit in this exchange of money for services is the promise of entertainment, obviously, but that’s also the barest baseline deliverable in play. A discriminating ticket buyer should not only want more but expect it. Yes, even in summer. The high profile comedy should deliver not merely sufficient laughs but, dare I say, a full scale riot of them; the acclaimed art house movie should probe the human condition in a particularly engrossing, expert, or moving manner; and the action blockbuster should be a veritable black hole of spectacle, awesome, forbidding, pulling you first into its orbit and then, inevitably, into the theater, where you’ll remain, rooted and riveted, for the better part of two hours. Why are audiences so often willing to settle for less than they deserve, for ephemeral, stake-less, occasionally artless, large canvas, identikit representations of generally soulless computer graphics engaged in various acts of crumbling or colliding or exploding extravagantly? The summer to come is set to witness, among other mediocrities and/or impossibilities, renaissance shoeshine man Andy Dwyer battling rampaging dinosaurs, former WWE Champion “The Rock” battling the greatest earthquake in the history of either California or Earth, and Arnold Schwarzenegger tenaciously battling the last lingering remnants of continuity from James Cameron’s original Terminator franchise. I’ve seen teasers and/or trailers for them all by now, and each has left me one degree or other of cold.* This summer has already unleashed the most ambitious Marvel superhero movie yet, one that skates by just barely on accumulated multi-platform star power and an unraveling human element periodically visible through the CGI carnage.

*Though, admittedly, Chris Pratt remains the “it” star of the moment, reportedly in line for every action role not nailed down over the next four years, including probably, though hardly limited to, the U.S. presidency. With Spielberg exec producing, “Jurassic World” will still likely exceed the minimum thrill quota for success, though they’re dealing with well-trodden (or is it trampled?) ground here. “Terminator: Genisys” looks like a fairly muddled mess at this early date, most notable for its producers’ insistence on deploying a shockingly old-looking T-100 model to deal with Skynet’s newest piece of indestructible hotness, replacing Linda Hamilton with a dragon-less, distractingly brunette Emilia Clarke, and conspicuous inability to correctly spell the word “Genesis”, which has quite possibly lost them my business altogether, unless some seriously more brazen (and effective) appeals to nostalgia are in the offing. For what it’s worth, the “San Andreas” trailer at least seemingly gets the scale right, and looked to have its share of authentically breathless moments, as opposed to ideas that might make a room full of brainstorming, buzz-feeding 29-year-old junior executives reflexively high five one another in triumph.

Mad Max: Fury Road is that exceedingly rare modern Hollywood offering that treats the contract between blockbuster movie and paying customer as sacrosanct, a raging, rollicking, steel-grinding, fire-spitting, nitro-eating, fuel-injected cinematic marvel in the non-superhero, dictionary sense of the word. This has to do, in no small part, with the fact that, filmed on location in the Namibian desert and the wilds of Australia, it has little and less to actually do with Hollywood, and, with its dearth of CGI in favor of appreciable sweat and personality,  hardly feels modern in the least. If The Road Warrior, with its visionary setting, unorthodox structure (its climactic tanker run/chase/free-for-all took up close to a half hour of uninterrupted screen time) and ridiculously dangerous, heretofore unimaginable stuntwork, was a bracing bolt of ice water to the faces of post-Star Wars action filmmakers and filmgoers alike, Fury Road miraculously delivers those same jolts, only tenfold, those same thrills, except exponential, and helpfully replaces the tonic with napalm. There are things in Fury Road that I’ve literally** never seen in a movie before, risks taken, invention rewarded, a ramshackle yet skyscraping tower of legitimate “wow” moments, achieved largely via the use of practical effects and heroic stunt driving, surpassing cleverness, and all-encompassing nerve. Even if it hadn’t already had the feel of an ending, Thunderdome, a sly, challenging, wholesale expansion of an already remarkable world that visibly squirmed against the restrictions imposed by its ill-conceived status as a PG-13 summer tentpole picture, is thirty years in the rearview mirror now. It never particularly cried out for revisiting. Series author Miller had decades to stew and ponder, however, and ample time to craft his successive opus, which springs, for all intents and purposes, fully formed from his imagination and hits the road running as perhaps the hardest R-rated event film of the new millennium so far. Fury Road contains at least three extended chase sequences that subjectively equal or better The Road Warrior’s still impressive (then mind-blowing) centerpiece. One must strain and nitpick mightily to detect even a whiff of compromise, and, even then, it’s a desert mirage.

**Unlike some, I know what the word “literally” means. I don’t use it as a literary device flippantly.

We first encounter Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), pre-apocalyptic cop turned post-apocalyptic survivalist and blockade runner, perched on a “scenic” overlook of what appears a vast ocean of scrub brush and sand, munching nervously on a two-headed lizard. It’s the last moment’s rest he’ll get for some time. Almost immediately, Max is accosted by swarming, maniacal enemies in impractical, overdesigned cars, the first group of many, who overtake, apprehend, and shuffle him off to The Citadel, a colossal desert oasis carved out of a mountainside. Here the huddled masses are subject to the brutal whims of Immortan Joe, a hulking dictator by way of cult leader whose fearsome armor and toothy half-mask hide a labor-intensive breathing apparatus and obscure the weathers of age. As in the previous trilogy, only two commodities have any worth in this hardscrabble world: water and gasoline (human life is, as ever, a distant, practically immaterial, third). Immortan Joe withholds the former from his subjects to keep them in line, and sends daredevil truck drivers – named imperators – out on dangerous supply runs for the latter, flanked and protected by fanatical, suicidal troops he calls “war boys”. Max hits town just as The Citadel’s most famous imperator, Furiosa (a magnetic, fully committed Charlize Theron), sets out on another run, though her actual cargo is both unexpected and precious indeed: Joe’s harem of beautiful “brides” (also distastefully referred to at times as “breeders”, so precarious is humanity’s future at this moment), spirited out of their prison cell and, with luck, off to the fabled “Green Lands”. Immortan Joe responds to this insurrection as any insane demigod would, by unleashing the full might of his mechanized minions in relentless pursuit of Furiosa – dozens of improvised automotive missiles in total, including Joe’s implacable monster truck, a muscle car that runs on tank treads, another giant contraption with in-house tribal drummers dangling off its back, and one overdeveloped vehicle essentially hammered together out of Marshall amplifiers, ridden by a delirious guitarist whose axe periodically shoots flame – with Max chained to one of the cars, face first into the fray, as a combination hood ornament and human shield.

The secret to Fury Road’s success lies wholly with Miller, who, along with fellow end times visionary George A. Romero, has rarely ever allowed commercial concerns to overtly compromise his ability to entertain on his own terms, or frustrate his desire to explore what began as an already fairly unforgettable world. Over the course of his tetralogy, Max, the nomadic man of action, has moved from engaging lawless gangs to ruthless scavengers, from observing the first tentative efforts at rebuilding society, to the establishment, with The Citadel, of a comparative Eden that is nevertheless fatally corrupted from the top down. It takes a while, but Furiosa’s single-minded determination to get her charges beyond Immortan Joe’s reach finally wins the Road Warrior to her, and their, cause. In reality, the film is just as much Furiosa’s story as Max’s, if not more, and one which Theron owns thoroughly through much the same combination of minimal dialogue, primal presence, and outsized heroics that helped make Max’s original incarnation so striking. The underlying feminist principles powering the jailbreak and ensuing manic flight to freedom, much remarked upon prior to the film’s release, are treated by Miller and his scrappy band of protagonists as self-evident, outlined without ever being underlined. Miller’s characters are powerful because they seek justice, because they fight back, assume agency, and resist with all their might. If the film can be said to have a weakness, it probably has to do with the fact that the understated, intensely physical Hardy is no match for the innate charisma of mid-1980s Mel Gibson, an affliction he sadly shares with any number of other capable actors, including post-mid-1980s Mel Gibson. This is far from a fatal flaw, and even though Hardy never really makes the role his own, he acquits himself nicely overall. Despite his name in the title, Max doesn’t have to be the focal point of Fury Road, because the film, and its world, have finally, definitively grown beyond him.

Mad Max: Fury Road will likely linger in the viewer’s subconscious far longer than might its more commonplace Cineplex brethren. The film is, first and foremost, a resounding success on the plain of imagination, where it outthinks and outworks its competition at almost every death-defying turn. Theron is an exceptional heroine, fierce, human, and uncompromising, Immortan Joe (played, in a nice hat tip to series history, by O.G. Mad Max villain Hugh Keays-Byrne, a.k.a. “Toecutter”) is a truly hissable villain who nevertheless possesses discernible motives beyond megalomania and in excess of 1.5 dimensions, and Hardy an adequate anti-hero later graduated to a well above average heroic enigma. The ever-advancing waves of enemies are lovingly characterized and differentiated, from an early band of marauding pirates driving porcupine-armored off-road vehicles, to the guardians of a mountain pass, a great tribe of faceless George Clintons casually dropping mid-air hand grenades on the fleeing tanker as they leap over it, to Joe’s own bottomless horde of out of control war boys, who, possessed with a death wish disguised as spiritual advancement, jump heedlessly from one speeding car to the next, often ending up crushed beneath the wheels, or recklessly flank and seek to ram Furiosa and Max off the road, or who hang suspended at the ends of great poles which are then swung directly into the path of the truck. The fact that so little of the film appears to live in a computer makes it resonate doubly at all times, and allows the scenes which clearly do – as in the stupefying climax of an early chase directly into the heart of a vicious, fearful sandstorm – to slide into the narrative seamlessly. The stunt work and vehicular effects here are transcendent, and great care has been expended in the areas where the series has traditionally most shone – cinematography, production/costume design, second unit, etc. The result is a film that pulls off the neat trick of thoroughly exceeding both modern expectations (overblown and potentially poisonous) and the legendary benchmark achievements of the past (which, given The Road Warrior’s action pedigree, seemed nigh impossible), while still finding and fitting comfortably into its own place.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) 4/4 stars

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