Saturday, May 16, 2015

"Mad Max: Fury Road" (2015)

Starring Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult
Written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris
Directed by George Miller
Rated R — Violence, language, brief nudity
Running Time: 120 Minutes

"Mad" Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is a broken man. In the years following the total collapse of society after a series of wars over natural resources, he has wandered the wasteland alone. One day he's set upon by a war party from the Citadel. His prize possession, a modified police Interceptor, is taken from him and he's to be kept alive as a blood donor for warriors of the Citadel who worship their leader, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne).

Joe keeps the thousands of people who have gathered at the Citadel at his whim, as he controls their water and food. His greatest warrior, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is to drive her armored war rig to procure fuel from another community. When it's discovered that she has, in fact, made off with Immortan Joe's harem of wives, Max is loaded into the vehicle of Nux (Nicholas Hoult), one of the war boys, as part of the pursuit.

Soon enough, Max gets himself free and allies himself with Furiosa and her rebels, knowing none of them can ever go back to the Citadel or allow Joe to catch up with them. Furiosa has sold the wives on the promise of a safe haven beyond the desert mountains, but for Max, hope is a thing he left behind years ago. Maybe... just maybe, though, he can get it back.

After fifteen years of false starts, "Fury Road" is finally here. A movie that suffered this long in development hell usually never even gets made, and it's even more rare that if it does it's any good. "Mad Max," on the other hand...

"Fury Road" is a pitch-perfect, rage-fueled fever dream acid trip of an action movie. The tension and sense of momentum rarely let up. Psychotic designs and insane stunt work rule the day. George Miller has totally recreated and refurbished and revitalized his intense post-apocalyptic world and made it even more sick, more gross and more totally awesome. There's a character in this film who rides atop a giant truck loaded with speakers, playing a double-neck flame-throwing guitar:

If that doesn't tell you something about this movie and how the word awesome is at the very core of it, then... I don't know, move on.

First and foremost, action is king in "Fury Road." Miller makes sure each attack by Joe's war party on the rig is distinct from the last. The cars are loaded up with every kind of insane, wacky bits of armor and weaponry Miller and his designers can think up. More than a hundred mutant cars and trucks tear across the desert, ramming and slamming each other into submission. Every car is unique, full of strange modifications that all seem like they came out of a demon junkyard.

Miller crafts his action sequences with relentless precision that mimics utter chaos. Largely eschewing computer generated effects for practical stunts, every crash also has a weight to it that's undeniable. CG effects are used for a number of enhancements — bodies slamming against the ground beneath flaming wrecks, for example.

The images Miller crafts are also a dirty kind of beautiful. I once used that phrase to describe the writing of Junot Diaz, but it's perfectly appropriate here. These days, the teal-and-orange color scheme has become something of a joke in major Hollywood movies, but Miller and cinematographer John Seale take that and push it to an almost absurd extreme. The result is a film that looks as highly stylized as the world and characters it depicts, and it is gorgeous. It's impossible to take your eyes off the screen, to not attempt to drink in all the wonderful, rusted car modifications, or even the sickening makeup jobs on all the characters and their nutty costumes. There's so much detail here, it's astounding. And Miller composes his images and makes cuts so that everything is easy to follow and keeps up that incredibly necessary sense of momentum.

The characters barely speak; instead, they earn each other's trust through their actions defending the war rig from Immortan Joe's constant onslaught. There are a few quiet moments where they get to know each other better, but the film's best and most developed relationship, between Max and Furiosa, is one built entirely on earned respect.

One of the most controversial aspect of the film — if one wants to call it that since I'm really only referring to a handful of losers on the Internet — is the film's unapologetic feminism. In "Fury Road," the characters aren't fighting over resources, but over human beings. A less-than-subtle take on human trafficking, "Fury Road" posits the simple idea: People, women in particular, are not property.

To that end, Miller wisely makes Furiosa a central, indispensable figure in the film. She is, without a doubt, a total fucking badass. Theron nails it. She's tough, she's smart, she's utterly determined and putting everything she has on the line here. Decked out with a forehead smeared with engine grease and a mechanical arm, she's a warrior of ferocity and skill. She's the perfect partner for Max.

Tom Hardy takes over for Mel Gibson, thirty years after the last trip into the broken world of Mad Max. (Some folks have grumbled that this is a 'remake' but literally the only evidence of this is changing Max's dead son to a dead daughter.) Hardy doesn't have much to say, but while a number of critics have mentioned that Max takes a back seat to Furiosa, I don't entirely subscribe to that. Max is just as integral to the goings on, with his own arc, but by its design, there are things Furiosa has to do in this movie in order to make her arc complete, and that can give the impression that Max is just a side character in his own movie.

But, there's also the fact that Theron shares on-screen credit with Hardy, side by side. They share this rest of this movie, too.

If we want to quibble about things, the plot of "Fury Road" is pretty thin. It exists to serve the characters and their quest for agency, and that's about it. The wives themselves aren't as totally distinct as I'd hoped they were, neither are the "mothers" that appear late in the game. Occasionally, all the revving engines and booming explosions drowns out some of the dialogue, especially in the case of Nux, who is often doing a lot of crazed screaming and thrashing. The sheer intensity of the movie can be draining.

But these are minor frustrations in a film that has shed everything but its necessities. There's no overwhelming sense of franchise-building or sequel bait here. There's no chaff. Like the barren world its characters inhabit, "Fury Road" is lean and vicious.

I could keep talking about "Fury Road." When I walked out of the theater, I wanted to go right back in and see it again. Thrilling, gorgeous and out of control, George Miller's fourth Mad Max film is worth every minute of the wait.