' Cinema Romantico: Mad Max: Fury Road

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

“Hope is a mistake,” declares Mad Max himself (Tom Hardy), a line modeled on Red Redding’s observation that “Hope is a dangerous thing.” And while Red was talking about the naïve optimism an incarcerate might carry of one day not seeing life through the prism of the penitentiary, he might as well have been talking about devout movie-goers cavorting off to the multiplexes each summer who so desperately hope for a film that transports rather than merely distracts like the endless spate of box office grabbing brand name drivel. And hope seems so perilous because as a concept it feels so tenuous. It’s inanimate, a test of faith. Hope is “something in our hearts.” Hope is “just over the horizon.” Hope so often becomes a figurative place, meaning it is accorded fantastical nicknames, monikers like “The Green Place”, which is what it goes by in “Mad Max: Fury Road” where “green” must seem so beguiling in an apocalyptic wasteland.


Ah, but hope in director George Miller’s film eventually proves itself less about going forward into the great unknown and more about looking back toward a familiar place. It’s voguish to declare that Hollywood summers are essentially apocalyptic wastelands of creativity on account of incessant familiarity, superhero movies and sequels of sequels of sequels. Yet that theory is not absolute. Rather than conjure an entirely new cinematic tentpole out of thin air, Miller returns to his cultish creations of the 70’s and 80’s, the “Mad Max” trilogy; and rather than move the series forward, he merely borrows its various parts to concoct a raucous engine for an updated eye-catching cinematic vehicle. There is no need to have intimate or even casual history with the previous films to enjoy “Fury Road.” It stands alone, and it stands out from the overstuffed lumbering Hollywood leviathans that throw money at automated ideas on an Excel spreadsheet. Miller strips away every narrative non-essential until that’s all left is the overwhelmingly ferocious thrill of the chase along with decisive proof that women and men were created equal.

“Fury Road” opens with an evocative and swift sequence of world-building, introducing a massive desert enclave, the Citadel, where the requisite villain Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) keeps the desperate populace on an H2O leash, regulating the fiercely precious water resources, only doling them on momentous occasions. Breathing through tubes, his face obscured by a punk rock Skeletor mask, we can barely make out what he's saying half the time, and so what? Words have hardly ever mattered in the “Mad Max” universe and so they are barely consequential here. Actions count.

Take our protagonist, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). A high-ranking minion of Immortan Joe and at the wheel of a tanker truck on a gas-harvesting deployment, a mere fateful glance in her rearview mirror signals she’s gone rogue, absconding with Joe's so-called “breeders”, women he has enslaved to produce a male heir, one of whom (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) is pregnant. Joe and his automobile cavalcade fire off in pursuit, kick-starting an incredibly furious two hour action movie cannonade. “Fury Road” is a Category Five chase movie, tantalizingly edited by Margaret Sixel to within an inch of coherence, exquisitely paced like a throbbing rock song, verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus, roaring with a tightly controlled mania before a brief downturn in the second act to quickly exposit goals and then exuberantly crescendo without overstaying its welcome. At times, every facet of the filmmaking process harmonizes in such symphonic grandeur that the sheer power of a film being made engulfs your senses.

It's basically a road movie, of course, and like any cross-country trip it reaches a fork, one that sets up for either a punishing trek across “the salt” into likely existentialism or back the way they came and into a requisite slam-bang third act. Miller steers them into the slam-bang third act, adhering to the law of its release date, yes, though this isn’t slam-bang for the sake of slam-bang. This is a genuine feminist uprising, an intentional assault on the guns and gasoline masochists disguised as slam-bang.


Not for nothing does Mad Max essentially get shunted aside in his own movie. He declares himself a survivalist but Imperator is a Latin word that effectively translates to Commander and that aptly summarizes Ms. Theron’s turn of quiet immensity. In a film of kinetic action and mind-boggling stunts, where a post film credit goes to a senior pyrotechnics technician because this is the sort of movie that blows shit up for real, the screen is commanded by its leading lady. Theron gives a modern day silent movie performance with grippingly expressive eyes, crossing the steely pre-serve glare of Maria Sharapova with the ferocious motherliness of Ellen Ripley. It’s the motor oil she smears on her face like black war paint, not the motor oil in the myriad of engines that makes this movie go.

“Fury Road” leans feminist, though I’m not sure Max does. Though he sees hope differently as the film ends, his survival instinct remains, and if he ran into Megan Fox fighting Michael Bay in Thunderdome in a fifth film, I’m not sure he wouldn’t align himself with whomever curried more favor. But then, that’s what makes him such a fair-minded arbiter; he’ll show respect to anyone who can hang, and even more toward someone who can outdo. Furiosa outdoes. The film ends with a figurative tip of the cap, him to her as he vanishes into the crowd, leaving her face, rising to glorious heights, as the last image we see. He’s been bested. You half-think George Miller is daring some blockbuster auteur to come and do the same.

1 comment:

Derek Armstrong said...

Nice review. Speaking of your own spectacle (the writing kind), I love how you so rarely come out and say "I LIKED THIS MOVIE" or "I DIDN'T LIKE THIS MOVIE." I sometimes have to wait until the end of the year top ten to know just how much.

I'm struggling with exactly how much I like this. I am impressed with every element of the film without loving it overall. I expect to feel enthralled while watching it -- I got chills during my favorite spectacle of last year, Edge of Tomorrow -- and I just didn't. But what a blast of exciting, old-fashioned filmmaking. Just not, you know, The Second Coming.