Sunday, January 31, 2016

Mad Max: Fury Road

Director: George Miller
Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Zoë Kravitz, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton, Josh Helman, Nathan Jones
Running Time: 120 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

There's always that risk of feeling completely lost or out of the loop when the latest film in a long-running franchise with which you have no familiarity is released. And in the rare event it's celebrated to the extent that George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road is, it's easy to have a debate in your head whether you should even go through the trouble of seeing it. While that might be a close-minded thing to say, we all have those blank spaces in our moviegoing and it's a legitimate concern that my inability to get around to watching 1979's Mad Max, 1981's Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior or 1985's Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome could create a self-inflicted roadblock in any potential appreciation of the new film. But 10 minutes in, the female protagonist drives her War Rig right through those preconceived notions and I'm completely sold, up to speed and fully engulfed in the universe Miller created and has now returned to. No explanations necessary because it's right there on the screen, so much so that it takes until about an hour for an actual conversation to occur. In many ways, this should have been the highest-grossing movie worldwide because it speaks the one universal language: Action. Everything revealed is done so visually, and once Miller gets his hooks in, your his.

Technically, this delivers unlike any recent entry in the sci-fi/action genre, with effects, production design, action sequences and cinematography so spectacular you must be thinking this is some kind of a joke as you watch, mouth agape at what's transpiring.  If it's a common, justified complaint that we're beaten down every year by uninspired computer-generated mayhem, this is its cure and a beating I'd gladly take again with a smile on my face. Striving for artistic excellence absent in most movies of its ilk, it tells its story expertly with a hardly a misstep to be found. Hearing that a certain movie "needs to seen in a theater" usually causes my eyes to immediately roll back into my head, but the size and scope of this project legitimately demands it. Those prematurely proclaiming it one of the greatest action movies of all-time may only have to wait a few years before discovering the possibility they weren't that far off the mark.

Set in a future, post-apocalyptic desert wasteland where water and gasoline are in short supply, the grizzled Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is captured by a group of War Boys, led by the ruthless Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who takes him to the Citadel where he'll be imprisoned as a blood donor. But when Joe sends out one of his lieutenants, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), in a rig to collect gasoline, he realizes she's stolen his Five Wives selected for breeding and gone off course, double-crossing him. Joe enlists an entire army, including a sick War Boy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult) who will stop at nothing to impress him, and has Max strapped to the hood of his truck for blood supply. Looking to make it to the "Green Place" with the women and escape Joe's tyranny, Furiosa's path will cross with Max and Nux's, resulting in a combustible situation that test everyone's loyalty and will to survive.

There's a thrilling chase sequence that seems to last about twenty minutes in the front half of the picture and  the highest compliment that can be given to it is that you don't feel as if your senses have been pummeled and are actually looking forward to whatever follows. Since Miller and cinematographer John Seale are such pros at sfilming these scenes, the action is the setup and there's never a doubt as to what's happening at any given moment. One of the script's biggest strengths is that we're immediately keyed in to the decisions these characters make and why without the burden of needless expository dialogue.

Furiosa's motivations are clear early on, as she intends to be the one who shakes things up, leading a surprising rebellion that lets Immortan Joe (clad in a terrifying Skeletor-like breathing mask) know that, even in a desperate, post-apocalyptic wasteland, these women aren't his property, nor is anyone else. And Theron is in full ass-kicking mode, giving the one-armed Furiosa a death stare that would send any potential threat heading for the hills before she even throws a punch or fires a shot, both of which she does plenty of. The arc of Hardy's Max and Hoult's Nux is a little more complicated, but no less riveting.

As the maniacal loner and prisoner finally getting a taste of freedom, there's an air of mystery surrounding what Max will actually do with it because he's flat-out dangerous. He could easily align with Furiosa or become her and the girls' worst enemy at the drop of a hat and while Hardy's performance has widely been labeled as merely sufficient in the face of Theron's, it's worth considering how effortlessly he replaces Mel Gibson with hardly anyone noticing. Nux's job as a character is to essentially sacrifice himself for Joe's greater cause so what resonates about Hoult in the role is how the realization slowly washes over him that it may not be worth it and he'd rather be a human being than a weapon. And The Five Wives (played by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Zoë Kravitz, Abbey Lee and Courtney Eaton) are hardly portrayed as passive damsels in distress, often taking a surprisingly active roles in the carnage as Miller also lets each of their personalities shine through, simultaneously subverting and exploiting their supermodel images for the good of the story.

This feels entirely like how action movies used to be made in the 1980's and it's arguable the chase scenes and action sequences (which pretty much compose every minute of its length) give Star Wars: The Force Awakens a run for its money in terms of production design and its balance of CGI and practical effects. You could call Miller's creation a throwback but doing so would almost imply it isn't the real thing or in any way feels like a reboot or remake in any traditional sense. There's a lot to take in at once in terms of what's on screen so it's not unusual that your jaw suddenly drops at the visual inventiveness of  it all, such as the guitar player strapped to the front of the rig or the "polecats" of Joe's army.   And because there's so little dialogue, the music has to carry much of the load, with Junkie XL's recognizably pulse-pounding score more than delivering the goods.

As big an achievement as this is, and how little it feels directed by a 70-year-old, it's accomplishments are primarily technical, making it difficult to gauge just how much stayed with me after the credits rolled. It's easy to imagine watching the movie multiple times with little difficulty because it's so exciting, but there is a nagging worry that its pleasures, as considerable as they are, may only run skin deep. Of course, this could just be a side effect of it being a genre picture or possibly where my unfamiliarity with the franchise prevents it from leaving the long-lasting impact it would on someone who grew up with the original films.

While nostalgia admittedly went a long way in covering for some of The Force Awakens' shortcomings in the minds of many, it's nearly impossible to level that accusation here. And there's nothing at all average in the execution of it, as Miller temporarily breaks down the barrier that's historically prevented action movies from gaining critical respectability. Thematically, there is more to it if you're willing to read between the lines to see this as a Biblical allegory about feminism, war, oppression or the environment, but Fury Road's ultimate value comes in the pure joy of just simply experiencing it.

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