Thursday, June 18, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

If nothing else, you can't say Aussie director George Miller doesn't have vision. Whether its his post-apocalyptic Ozploitation Mad Max films or his talking-animals flicks like Happy Feet, Miller's films bear his unmistakable mark of high-energy hijinks that don't play like any other film. The Mad Max films in particular feel like they're a world apart from other action films: the violence is no less brutal but feels much more real, the world-gone-feral foreign but just familiar enough to feel plausible. And unlike John McClane or James Bond, Max - portrayed in the first three films by Mel Gibson - carried scars of his exploits. If he broke his arm in one movie (as he does in Mad Max), he still struggles to move it in the next (The Road Warrior).

Mad Max: Fury Road - the fourth Mad Max film and first in 30 years - finds Max (now played by Tom Hardy) still on the run from bandits, quickly getting caught by a band of "war boys" at the service of Immorten Joe (Hugh Keys-Byrne, who also played the villain in the original). Max becomes a human blood bag for Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a war boy out to prove his worth. Nux is given the chance when driver Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) goes rogue in an attempt to liberate Joe's "wives" from slavery, bringing Max along for the chase. However, Max escapes, becoming a hesitant accomplice to Furiosa in her mission to reach "the green land" - a place where water is plentiful.

The film wastes no time with this narrative. After a brief table-setting prologue delivered in voiceover, it's literally off to the races, and the subsequent two hours are essentially one prolonged chase sequence. For most filmmakers, that alone would distinguish their film. Miller, however, isn't content with simply creating crackerjack action, transforming the story into a fascinating battle between the feminine and hyper-masculinity.

More after the jump.

What's immediately fascinating about Fury Road is how different it looks from other contemporary summer blockbusters, namely in that it's not afraid to be colorful (in every sense of the word). Miller shoots the film with high contrast color, making the reds of the Australian outback (well, Namibian desert, where it was shot) contrast brilliantly with the crystal-blue sky. That use of color applies to the actors and costumes as well; pasty white make-up gives the war boys a ghostly look, and the wives' white dresses lend them a virginal appearance compared to the dust-caked duds on Max and Furiosa. Miller also relies on visual eccentrics, such as stylized performances and higher frames-per-second rates, to create a distinctive look for this world. The designs of the vehicles are as insane as they are unique, including one rig that's essentially a wall of amplifiers fronted by a masked man on bungee cords playing a guitar that doubles as a flamethrower. It quite simply looks like nothing else.

More importantly, Miller gives a master class in how action should be directed. Each setpiece has a clear beginning, middle, and end, and the action is staged so that there is clarity no matter how chaotic things get. A killer sequence set in a massive sandstorm makes great use of both digital and practical effects, the latter lending each beat the weight of reality. Similarly, another chase involving war boys swinging from poles onto Furiosa's rig is a stunning feat of practical stunt work, and as a result the scene is all the more awe-inspiring. Miller's direction is a truly remarkable technical feat, and it sets him apart as one of the genuine greats of the action genre.

To be a top-rate action film would be accomplishment enough for Fury Road, especially compared to its summer-blockbuster contemporaries. But the film also dares to tackle issues of gender as well, truly setting it apart from other genre films. The question hanging over the entire film is "who killed the world," and Miller's story implies that aggressively-violent hyper-masculinity was the culprit. Immorten Joe's society is built on him and his upper echelon controlling the people's access to water, but he holds an even greater power in the form of his martial declarations. The war boys are raised from birth to be fighters, disfigured and taught that dying in battle will bring eternal honor and glory. Immorten Joe is revered by them as a god, but he's an idol who's as physically disfigured as his disciples. Their masculinity is a corrupting force, distorting their minds in addition to their bodies.

This stands in stark contrast to the women of the film. As mentioned, Immorten Joe's wives are not dirtied or disfigured, but instead appear virginal and unsullied. Furiosa wears war paint and is a born fighter, but she dreams of taking the women to "the green land," a utopian paradise of only women where they can finally be free. The women in the story will fight, but they are not driven to engage in suicidal acts of destruction. Their fight is to survive in a world in which they are increasingly marginalized, given less and less liberty at the hands of the men in charge.

Theron's and Hardy's performances, along with Hoult's, are what really drive this idea home. Even though his name is in the title of the film, Max is not the hero so much as he is a reluctant accomplice to the true protagonist, Furiosa. Hardy plays Max with a likable loner mentality, with a subtle understanding that this is not his story but it is a way to help someone in need. Hoult, on the other hand, is terrific at embodying every aspect of being a war boy, exuding a manic energy that gives him a frightening menace. But it's Theron who owns this film: even though her Furiosa is a reticent character, she imbues every word with the weight of survival, and every action with strength and don't-mess-with-me determination. It's a performance that transcends the action-heroine standard, and enriches the film in the process.

In a summer full of franchise-mandated sequels driven by digital effects, Mad Max: Fury Road comes through like a breath of fresh air. It's another sequel, certainly, and one to a franchise that has laid dormant for three decades. But with it's use of practical effects, clear direction in memorable setpieces, excellent performances, and thoughtful thematic material, the film looks and plays like nothing else on the screen currently. It's a summer blockbuster and late entry in a franchise that has real vision and stunning intelligence, a film that's beautiful eye candy that also works the brain. What more could you possibly ask for? A

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