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Holy Shit! Mad Max: Fury Road!!

June 8th, 2015
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Based on the awesome trailers and the strong early reviews, I had high hopes for Mad Max: Fury Road, but holy cow, I was not expecting the masterpiece I have just beheld.  Fury Road is a triumph, a guts-gripping thrill-ride filled to overflowing with extraordinary visual inventiveness, absolutely bonkers insane action, wonderfully compelling characters with rich emotional arcs, humor and horror and fun all wrapped up together in a breathtaking cinematic package.  I stand amazed.

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This movie really should not exist.  George Miller directed a trilogy of low-budget Mad Max films back in the seventies and eighties, with Mel Gibson in the lead.  I’ve been reading for decades that Mr. Miller wanted to mount a fourth film, but it seemed like his chance had long-since passed.  This franchise felt well and truly done.  The last Mad Max movie was back in 1985.  In the last twenty years, Mr. Miller has only directed four films, one of which was a TV documentary and two of which were the animated Happy Feet and its sequel.  It didn’t seem to me that Mr. Miller had ANY films left in him, and if he did, the chances that they would be any good seemed slim.  And returning to a thirty-year-old franchise?  I can’t think of a single example of that happening and working — the most well-known similar examples of a sequel made after many years had passed all resulted in enormous levels of fan disappointment.  (I’m thinking of the Star Wars prequels, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and The Godfather Part III.)

But my goodness has seventy-year-old George Miller blown the barn doors off of my expectations.  Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the most astonishing films I have seen in years.  This is a big-screen film if ever there was one.  Every frame of the film is filled with extraordinary creativity, and this is a movie worth soaking in on the very biggest screen you can possibly see it on.

Fury Road is the fourth Mad Max film, but it completely stands on its own.  Everything you need to know about Max is established in the film’s opening minutes, and all of the other characters and situations in the film are completely original to this film.  (The Mad Max films have always had a very loose sense of continuity — see Bruce Spence appearing as two entirely different characters in The Road Warrior and then Beyond Thunderdome.  And that continues to be the case here, as Max somehow has his iconic car back when the film begins, despite the fact that it was destroyed back in The Road Warrior.)  The film’s opening is clever.  I loved the engine-revving sounds we hear over the company logos that open the film, and then we get a quick, concise prologue that establishes the destroyed world and the lost, broken Max.  Then the new adventure can begin.

Fury Road is an action-adventure like no other I have ever seen.  I had read that George Miller had set out to create a movie that was one long car chase, which sounded cool, but I couldn’t imagine what that would really look like or how that could sustain an entire film.  But I’ll be damned if Mr. Miller hasn’t succeeded.  We’re only a few minutes into the film when Furiosa (Charlize Theron)’s war party sets out, and the film and its characters are almost entirely on the move for every moment of the film from then on.  That Mr. Miller can sustain this momentum for the film’s entire run-time is an achievement worthy of enormous praise.  Mr. Miller wields the pace of his film like an artist, carefully structuring each scene so that the film has an ebb and flow to keep the audience engaged without becoming overwhelmed or bored.  I happened to enjoy all of the crazy action in the last act of Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel (click here for my review), but I know many people who got overwhelmed and turned off, feeling that the fight sequences went on for way too long.  So one can clearly see the risk in what Mr. Miller has attempted in making his entire film a chase.  But he avoids all of the pitfalls so effectively that he makes it look like child’s play.

The key is the extraordinary creativity in the way Mr. Miller has structured the action in his film.  I am struggling to find the words to describe how incredibly wonderful the action is in Fury Road.  Yes, the entire film is basically a car chase.  But every few minutes Mr. Miller switches gears (no pun intended) to introduce new vehicles, new characters, new settings and new situations for our heroes to pass through and attempt to overcome.  This is a film built to reward repeat viewings, as each frame of the film was overstuffed with more than my eyes and brain could possibly take in.  So much thought has clearly gone into each character and each vehicle.  (And in this film, the vehicles are most certainly characters.  By the end of the film I cared as much for Furiosa’s huge war rig as I did about classic space-ships from the films I loved in my youth like the U.S.S. Enterprise and the Millennium Falcon.)  So as our heroes overcome one hurdle only to be faced with their next challenge, it never feels boring or like more-of-the-same.  And the magical beauty of the film is that Mr. Miller doesn’t fall into the usual trap of trying to keep topping himself by introducing increasingly outlandish, out-of-left-field surprises or twists.  All of our heroes’ challenges are pretty much set up right from the beginning, so there’s a sense of clock-work like “rightness” and inevitability as the story unfolds.

When creating sequels, especially in a case like this when the filmmakers were returning to a franchise that has long lain dormant, I think the question one has to ask is “why.”  WHY go back to that well?  Is there more of a reason than just trying to make a buck off of the fans?  There needs to be a story worth telling.  Mr. Miller definitely succeeded in that.  Also, there is an additional good reason to return to a franchise, particularly after time away, which is to use modern technology to create the world of the story in a way that the earlier films, limited by budget and the technology of the time, were not able to achieve.  This was one of the things I most enjoyed about J.J. Abrams’ first crack at a rebooted Star Trek film — it was hugely exciting to see the Enterprise and the familiar Star Trek environments brought to life in a big-budget way that the earlier films had seldom been able to achieve.  And that is most definitely the case here in Fury Road.  That’s not to say that films like the original Mad Max or The Road Warrior were hurt by not having huge budgets or the benefits of CGI technology.  Those films are pretty much perfect just as they are.  But it is undeniably cool to see the world of Mad Max and the Wasteland brought to life with the money and technology that Mr. Miller had available to him with this film.  Those first few minutes we spend in Immortan Joe’s domain had me all a-goggle at the visual spectacle of it all.  This is a post-apocalyptic world brought to life in a way that makes the efforts in, say, Beyond Thunderdome look impossibly primitive.  Seeing a Mad Max story brought to life with the full benefit of this money and visual effects technology is so much fun, and a worthy reason to return to this universe.

I should also note, though, that a great deal of the joy of Fury Road is its practical-effects work.  While I believe that CGI was used to enhance some of the environments, the vast majority of the special effects in this film — including almost all of the absolutely incredible, jaw-dropping vehicular mayhem — were achieved practically.  My hat is off to Mr. Miller and his incredible team.

Tom Hardy ably steps into Mel Gibson’s shoes as Max.  Mr. Hardy is a very different kind of Max than Mr. Gibson was — Mr. Hardy’s Max is quieter, and less instantly charismatic.  But he has Max’s toughness and his gruff charm.  He’s great.

But although this film is titled Mad Max, it undeniably belongs to Charlize Theron as Furiosa.  I have been increasingly impressed with Ms. Theron’s work in a variety of films lately (she’s superb in Young Adult and just the other day I was writing about how she is by far the best thing in A Million Ways to Die in the West), but her work here tops all of those other films.  I cannot believe how amazing Ms. Theron is in this film.  She owns this movie.  She has created such an instantly iconic character here.  She imbues Furiosa with a fierce savagery and intensity that is instantly compelling.  Holy cow does she hold her own in the action sequences.  But even more than that, although we learn fairly little about Furiosa’s past in the film, Ms. Theron’s face and her eyes tell us everything we need to know about the thousand hard choices that have led her to the point at which we meet her at the start of this film.  I love this character.

Whereas the original Mad Max trilogy felt very much to me like a film for boys — and, indeed, I have felt a weakness of the first film is slight misogyny inherent in the disposable nature of the character of Max’s wifeFury Road is surprisingly and impressively focused on its rich female characters.  Furiosa is one of the best female action-move leads I have ever seen, and I also loved the film’s treatment of Immortan Joe’s five wives.  First of all, the film shows a remarkable restraint in its depiction of the sexual slavery of those women.  I lesser film would have tried to titillate the audience by showing us the abuse these women suffered, but Fury Road leaves that all off-screen.  Second, I was impressed by the richness of the characters of each of the five women.  These are not just plot points.  They are not just things, as they angrily declare to Joe.  Instead, over the course of the film we get to know each woman as an individual character of her own.  That would be an impressive achievement in any film, particularly an action film like this.

But therein lies the genius of George Miller and Fury Road.  The action spectacle of the film is extraordinary, but the reason the film succeeds so wildly is the characters.  Mr. Miller and his team have been able to populate the film with a wonderful group of characters, giving each one a uniqueness and a character arc that is interesting and engaging.  I know some people just won’t watch a film like this.  Some people just can’t buy into a fantasy universe like this, no matter how well-crafted it is.  Some people will be turned off by the violence or the weirdness.  But for me, I love films like this.  I adore when films can create entire rich universes like the one George Miller and his team have created here.  When the filmmakers take the world and its characters seriously, the story-telling opportunities are extraordinary.  I found myself very moved when Max finally tells Furiosa a certain secret piece of information late in the film.  I found that moment as affecting, if not more so, than moments in most serious dramas — and this was an action movie!!  But that’s the power of this sort of film, and I love that Mr. Miller understands this so implicitly.

(By the way, that moment is also a rare moment in which this film is enhanced by having seen the previous ones.  The moment works in and of itself, but since fans of the franchise know that Max has kept that particular tidbit to himself since The Road Warrior, it becomes even more powerful.)

There is so much more I can write about, but this review is already getting very long.  So just a few additional quick thoughts:

I haven’t even mentioned Nicholas Hoult (Beast from the X-Men: First Class films), who is amazing as the War Boy named Nux.  His story was one of the most pleasurable surprises of the film.  When we first meet his character, I thought for sure I knew where his story was going, but thankfully his character arc unfolded in a way that surprised and delighted me.  (And I love the moment when we meet his mates!)

I loved seeing Hugh Keays-Byrne as the villains Immortan Joe.  Mr. Keays-Byrne was, of course, the main villain in the first Mad Max film, the Toecutter.  It’s great seeing him again here.  He creates, I think, the best villain of the Mad Max franchise.  I know many fans love Lord Humongous from The Road Warrior, but frankly I always found that character and his metal bikini to be a little silly.  Immortan Joe is a fearsome adversary for our heroes, and he feels like a complete character, a first, I think, for the villains in this series.

I have mentioned several times the incredible imagery in this film.  One more example: how great is Immortan Joe’s steering-wheel belt-buckle slash cod-piece?  That two-second image alone says everything one needs to know about that character and this world.

I also love everything we got to see of the religion that Immortan Joe created around himself and automobiles.  The way the War Boys select their steering wheels and raise them in prayer.  The way they paint their faces “all shiny and chrome” before a suicide run.  The emphasis on being witnessed, and of entering Valhalla, all of this feels extremely well-thought out and gives this big action movie spectacle a surprising amount of richness and depth.

There are so many great vehicles in the film, and so many amazing, inventive action sequences involving those vehicles.  The use of the long, bendable poles in the third act are among my favorites.

OK, let’s wrap this up.  Can you tell that I loved Fury Road?  I am so happy that this film exists, and so amazed by George Miller’s achievement.  This is a film I need to see again very soon.

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