Sunday, May 17, 2015

Review: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Rated R for intense sequences of violence throughout, and for disturbing images

Mad Max: Fury Road is the best action film of 2015, hands down. Out of everything that came out this year, only Furious 7 comes close to matching this in terms of sheer explosive joy. Between its car-chase core (90% of the film is pretty much two extended chase sequences), its outrageous visual design, its high-quality stunt work and effects, a pair of outstanding lead performances, and a surprising amount of thoughtfulness and depth, this movie kept my ass nailed to the seat for two whole hours of amazing cinema. This movie easily holds its own against the original trilogy, and will certainly hold a place in the pantheon of great modern action movies.

To start with, we have the world that this film effortlessly builds. Civilization was wiped out in wars for increasingly scarce resources, particularly oil and fresh water, and now, what's left of humanity is ruled by barbarians equipped with the remnants of pre-war technology. One of these barbarians, Immortan Joe, rules an oasis in the middle of the desert with an iron fist. He keeps most of the water, and the food grown with it, for himself and his lackeys, while trading the rest for oil and bullets to maintain his brutal rule. One day, one of Joe's military commanders, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), betrays him, hijacking a fuel convoy and liberating five of his "brides" in the hopes of finding the "Green Place" far away from Joe's brutality. Along the way, Furiosa meets up with our favorite post-apocalyptic hero, Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy). "Mad" Max had been captured by Joe's goons and now wants revenge, and seeks to help out anyone willing to defy Joe. Of course, Joe is not happy to have lost his sex slaves, and along with his allies in Gas Town and the Bullet Farm, he sends out a war party to capture Furiosa.

Post-apocalyptic fiction is nothing new. In fact, the original Mad Max trilogy helped set a template for many such films -- after the collapse of civilization, the dregs of humanity are out in the desert shooting each other for fuel and water, all while dressed in outrageous punk-rock fashions with lots of leather, spikes, and V8 death-mobiles. Mad Max: Fury Road continues in that grand tradition, with one key difference: it cranks up the budget and turns the whole show up to eleven. Every car now looks like a work of art built by a madman, with monster trucks, tanks, and big rigs made from all manner of spare parts and wrecks. Max's souped-up Pursuit Special, while still undoubtedly badass, looks like a plain-Jane Toyota Camry next to some of the creations on display. The highlight was undoubtedly a mobile concert stage blaring heavy metal, leading Joe's troops into the fray, complete with a musician whose double-necked guitar also serves as a flamethrower. With guns in short supply and reserved for only a few characters, other bad guys toss explosive spears and use long poles to jump onto their target's vehicle. Motor vehicles are the subject of a religion, with Joe's War Boys worshiping the God V8 and seeking a glorious death so they can drive the highways of Valhalla. It's war as conceived by Burning Man, and it is awesome. I honestly couldn't be bothered to care about whether any of this stuff was practical, because I was too busy taking in the spectacular sights -- nearly all of them brought to life with old-fashioned practical effects and stunts. Much like the makers of the Fast & Furious movies, director George Miller knows that, when you're watching a car chase, you're watching to see real vehicles barreling down the road, their drivers risking life and limb. Every moment these machines were on screen, I felt the roar of their engines, the dust they kicked up, the crunch of metal on metal, and the flames of their explosions.

And I felt a lot, because this movie is pretty much wall-to-wall action. From thirty seconds in all the way to the climax, it was almost always either moving or getting moving, with only a few short breathers. Joe and his men are always after Max, Furiosa, and the brides, putting constant pressure on them to press forward. This results in a film that's paced like a rocket, never once feeling like it was (*ahem*) spinning its wheels, narratively speaking. Something was always happening, whether it was the extended chase scene that makes up most of the first two acts, the other extended chase scene that makes up the finale, or the heroes having pulled ahead long enough to slow down and discuss their next course of action.

Still, though, it's in those slower moments when this film truly becomes great. As awesome as the world of this film is to watch, when you boil it all down it's just a bunch of machismo-fueled thugs indulging in the same behavior that caused the apocalypse in the first place. And to its credit, this film not only realizes that, it makes it one of its core themes. Max, Furiosa, and the brides are quite possibly the only people who have their heads on right, and it's this that triggers Furiosa and the brides' rebellion and Max's eager assistance in such. They don't want to see that monster Immortan Joe treat everybody around him (especially women) like his property, because anybody in their right mind should be utterly disgusted with him. The fact that Joe has followers at all is a sign of the utter depravity and, well, madness that's taken hold of the world, as much as all the paint-huffing and suicidal attacks that those followers indulge in. When one of the War Boys, clinging to the side of Furiosa's rig, begs for mercy as the brides prepare to kick him off, one of them responds with "who destroyed the world?" The answer is never stated, but the implication is clear: Joe and his war band are following in the grand tradition of those who did, with the big twist at the end of the second act only driving this home. Maybe, even with our lack of war rigs and spiked dune buggies, we have more in common with Immortan Joe and his followers than we'd like to believe.

The final piece of the puzzle here is the cast, which is uniformly outstanding. Tom Hardy's name is appropriate, as he was born to play these sorts of hard-ass roles; here, with only a few lines of dialogue in the whole film, he proves himself an action hero worthy to fill the boots of Mel Gibson. He is strong, silent, and badass. When the inevitable sequels are made (and they better be), they better bring back Hardy. Right behind him is Charlize Theron as Furiosa. Theron is no stranger to radically transforming herself for her roles (the most famous example of this being in Monster), and she continues that tradition here, sporting a buzzcut and a mechanical arm in the role of Queen of the Desert Wasteland. Theron is a perfect female counterpart to Hardy, holding her own in the action just as well as he does. Nicholas Hoult, meanwhile, is a long way from his pretty-boy heartthrob image, playing a War Boy named Nux who slowly comes around to Max and Furiosa's worldview. Even the brides, played by an assortment of supermodels (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Zoe Kravitz, Abbey Lee Kershaw, and Courtney Eaton -- no wonder Joe wants them back), managed to hold their own in both their dialogue and in the action.

Score: 5 out of 5

This was pretty much everything I could have hoped for with a new Mad Max movie. George Miller was at his deranged visionary best here, producing a blockbuster action movie that shows everybody how it's done. Fans of old-fashioned, hardcore action movies, this is what you've been waiting for.

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