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Mad Max: Fury Road

I hold no nostalgia for Mad Max. I get the appeal, but I didn’t grow up with the films like some other cinephiles did. More to the point, it’s hard for me to get attached to a series when the continuity is so loose and the film’s world makes no sense. I didn’t even bat an eye when Tom Hardy was cast to play Max, because Mel Gibson was basically playing a different character in each of the three films to begin with.

All of this to say that I wasn’t hyped up for Mad Max: Fury Road the way some others were. The trailers were incredible, sure, but I somehow couldn’t muster up the kind of mouth-watering anticipation I’d been seeing everywhere else. Maybe I’ve just grown so jaded that I know better than to get my hopes up over a big-budget trailer.

No, my interest wasn’t really piqued until the reviews came in, and they were extraordinary. EVERYONE seemed to be in love with this movie. And that’s for very good reason, because oh my god.

The presentation is so glistening with polish and effort that I scarcely know where to begin. The action scenes are marvelous from start to finish, though the heavy emphasis on vehicular mayhem (as opposed to shootouts, swordfights, fistfights, foot chases, etc.) leaves a fair bit of variety to be desired. Even so, the car chases and crashes are absolutely staggering, with breathtaking cinematography and editing. George Miller shows impeccable skill at knowing when to keep the speed going, and when to slow down so we can really feel the impact. It also helps that the cars utilize ramp jumps, grenades, poles, grappling hooks, flamethrowers, and all manner of other innovations to keep the action so much more spicy than just watching cars ram each other over and over.

The production design is impossibly good. The various cars were put together with tremendous creativity, and the film has several other huge machines that look gorgeous in their own gritty and cobbled-together way. On another level, there are so many smaller details that show great care and thought put into building this world.

But then you look closer and realize that this world still makes no goddamn sense.

To start with, there’s the classic plot hole that goes throughout the Mad Max films: If gasoline is so precious, why do these gangs waste so much of it driving fleets of flame-spurting vehicles all over the wasteland? Moreover, how could anyone build giant mechanical marvels and carve huge statues on a sheer cliff wall without the kind of infrastructure and order that died out in the apocalypse? Are we really supposed to believe that meatheaded savages did all of this? Last but not least, why is there a car that’s carrying a whole cadre of drummers, a massive wall of electric speakers, and a guy playing a double-necked electric guitar that shoots flames?

The answer to all of these questions is very simple: That’s exactly what anyone would do if they ruled the world swept clean because it’s awesome and shut up.

This movie (hell, this whole damn franchise) may be short on logic, but it’s huge on scale. The action scenes, the set design, the vistas of Australian desert… everything is made to feel positively epic in scope. Not only does it help sell the illusion that this is an actual world with actual people in it, but the scope makes the action sequences that much more effective. When we’re seeing miniscule people get thrown around like rag dolls in the middle of a sandstorm that takes up the entire screen, that’s the kind of spectacular grandeur that truly great blockbuster cinema is made of.

That being said, it’s obvious that character development was not a huge priority here. There’s a bit, don’t get me wrong, but only just enough to get by. A prominent example is the villain (Immortan Joe, played by Hugh Keays-Byrne), who’s nothing more than a cartoon tyrant. Still, he’s designed and played in such an overblown way that at least he’s fun to hate.

Then we have Max himself. Just as he’s been since The Road Warrior, Max is an enigma with no agenda or motivation other than survival. He’s a hardened man — more like an animal, in fact — whose identity, psyche, and morality have been stripped away after fending for himself in a wasteland for several years. He doesn’t even talk that much.

On paper, there isn’t a lot for the audience to hold onto. Lucky the character is being played by Tom Hardy, who’s already proven multiple times that he can carve a great performance out of nothing. The guy could spend two hours playing a mime in an imaginary box and somehow make it compelling. What’s more, Miller shows a remarkable flair for showing Max’s psychological scars in such a way that we can share in his madness.

Then we have Nicholas Hoult. He plays a “warboy,” which means that he has a drastically shortened life span. This might be due to radiation poisoning, but I’m not sure: everything comes so loud and fast that a lot of expository dialogue is hard to catch. Anyway, the warboys are basically treated as cheap labor, cannon fodder, and other such expendable soldiers. The idea is that because they live such short lives and Immortan Joe has promised them a place in Valhalla, these guys are all too eager to throw themselves into suicidal missions.

Hoult’s character is one such zealot, though he’s eventually faced with the notion that Joe may not be the promised redeemer after all. This “crisis of faith” arc may be truncated, but Hoult does a fine job of playing it.

In a neat twist, the lion’s share of development goes to the female characters. This is really their story, as Joe’s five brides decide that they’ve had enough of birthing his warlord offspring and now they they want out. So they go to Furiosa (Charlize Theron), one of Joe’s most trusted officers, who agrees to hijack a war rig and smuggle them out in search of a better home.

Yes, the plot is driven forward pretty much entirely by the female characters. That’s a tremendously refreshing change of pace for a multimillion-dollar blockbuster, especially in such a testosterone-driven franchise.

What makes it even better is how the five brides are treated. Considering that they were only ever supposed to be good-looking brood mares and their purpose in the plot was solely to act as MacGuffins, it’s both surprising and laudable that the brides act independently to affect the plot in vital ways. What’s more, they even have distinct personalities: Rosie Huntington-Whitely plays the mother figure and de facto leader of the group, Zoe Kravitz plays the tough-ass who knows how to handle a gun, we’ve got Riley Keough as compassionate one, we’ve got Abbey Lee as the scornful one, and Courtney Eaton plays the one who wants to give up and return to the relative comfort of Joe’s harem.

Granted, that’s not exactly much. Even so, the point stands that I’ve seen female characters who had far more to work with turned into useless trophies. And again, it’s not like development for any particular character was a huge priority here.

But then we have Furiosa, bar none the best character in this picture. She’s smart, resourceful, deadly in a fight, and focused on her goal, yet she’s smart enough to know that she can only go so far on her own. She and Max work beautifully off each other, but never to the point where they depend on each other or the film tries to force a romance arc. There’s also the matter of Furiosa’s prosthetic arm, which provides a neat gimmick and implies a long life of badassery. Indeed, Furiosa states that she’s helping the brides as part of a quest for redemption, but we never learn exactly what she’s seeking redemption for. This is definitely a case of “less is more,” as the mystery makes her more interesting.

And of course, there’s Charlize Theron swinging for the fences. This was a gift of a role for Theron, and I can’t possibly imagine another actress playing the character. She conveys the perfect blend of grit and strength with just the right amount of vulnerability and doubt. In her hands, Furiosa comes across as a bona fide badass without the slightest hint of Hollywood shine. And I realize that this isn’t the first time Theron (a model before she was an actress, remember) has made herself look relatively ugly for a role, but she and the makeup team got it just right for this picture.

It’s tough to describe how incredibly good Mad Max: Fury Road is, because it’s such a visceral experience. Everything about this film — the script, the score, the camerawork, the editing, the effects, the production design, the action sequences, EVERYTHING — was very specifically engineered for the sole purpose of landing like a punch to the gut. And it works. This is a superbly crafted thrill ride that has the added bonus of pissing off MRA groups.

This movie demands to be seen on the biggest possible screen with the loudest possible speakers, and the 3D premium should be considered mandatory.

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