Thursday, 28 May 2015

Movie Review: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)


This review marks the first of three films in the next couple of months that will require me to brush up on my 80s-90s action series… which should have come around a lot sooner than this, considering these are the kind of films that are required viewing for any self-respecting movie buff, but better late than never. The first Mad Max film furthers the thinking that the biggest of accomplishments come out of the smallest of budgets, as the visual aesthetic, characterization and overall grit of the film highlight some of the best that Australian cinema has to offer. Unfortunately, the follow-ups didn’t hold up nearly as well for me: Road Warrior was rather dull given how many times I’ve seen its Western-inspired plot and character development, despite being easily one of the most influential films of all time; and Beyond Thunderdome joins the list of films that make me question anything Rotten Tomatoes has to say. I was expecting 80’s cheese, but what I was given was literal pig shit. So, based on what came before it, my expectations aren’t that high given how we have approximately one-and-one-quarter good films to go on. But does this film at least deliver on the promise of fire-spewing electric guitars? This is Mad Max: Fury Road.

The plot: Max (Tom Hardy) is a wanderer in the Australian Outback who is made a prisoner of the despotic Immorten Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). When one of Joe’s highest ranking officers, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), goes AWOL with Joe’s breeding stock of wives in tow, Max finds himself in the middle of a conflict between Furiosa and Joe’s entire army of War Boys. Forced to work together, Max and Furiosa need to make their way out of Joe’s reach and to the Green Place where they can all be safe.

In the ensuing 30 years between this film and Beyond Thunderdome, lead star Mel Gibson has become the anti-Semite that the world loves (to hate/mock/ridicule and everything in between), director George Miller has largely worked on family films like the Babe and Happy Feet series and the post-apocalyptic leather-clad roadster setting has gone on to inspire some of my favourite media like the Fallout series, Saw (the final scene of the first film is one of the bigger inspirations for that love-it-or-hate-it franchise) and a near-endless barrage of ‘Beyond Thunderdome’ jokes. Given all this, Fury Road has a lot riding on it beyond just the promise of GWAR-inspired musical weaponry. Yeah, in case it isn’t obvious yet, seeing that guitar in the trailer is the sole reason I wanted to check this film out and decided to go back and do my homework for it. All things weird stick out for me, what can I say? Now, while I want to furiously query about why exactly Miller decided to resurrect this series after so much time had passed, this might be the absolute best time for this series to get a reboot/sequel (not entirely sure which one this is). With so many third-wave YA adaptations portraying such derivative and ultimately nonsensical variations of society after a major cataclysmic event, it makes perfect sense that Miller, one of the progenitors of the sub-genre, would want to come back and show these kids how it’s meant to be done.

It’s kind of surprising, given the presence of the Pyro’s favourite pastime, how grounded this film is. Not to say that there isn’t a lot of insanity to be had here; far from it, as this may be the first time that the titular character earns his nickname of Mad Max. It’s quite a tall order to out-crazy Mel Gibson on screen (in hindsight, at least), but Tom Hardy embodies that primal survival-of-the-fittest mindset while also showing that he isn’t stupid at the same time. One of my biggest gripes with the original film is how, despite the character’s mental state being a main thread throughout the film, he only really turns into Miffed Max by the end. Here, the adage about who is crazier in the film has weight behind it, as Max is shown to be just as savage, if not more so, than Immorten Joe and the War Boys. Said War Boys are pretty damn manic as well, embodying the kind of literal Viking mindset that would even make some people on Godlike Productions question their sanity. The reason why this film is as grounded as it is really boils down to the fact that not only is all the roadkill crazy played dead straight, but it is given an astounding level of pathos that makes it all work together. Between Max’s trauma over the people that he wasn’t able to save, Furiosa and War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult)’s paralleled arcs involving their beliefs of going to a better place and the way that Immorten Joe’s empire is explained without any egregious exposition, this is the kind of characterization and world-building that does everything right where the Divergent series royally fucked up. Without a doubt, the most ingenious bit of writing at work here is the idea behind the War Boys themselves: These people have stunted life-spans, due to being bred solely for war, so Immorten Joe instills in them a Viking mentality that sees their inevitable death as something to aspire to rather than something to fear. Something that simple that explains so much, without needing to bring it screaming into the forefront of the film, is the kind of writing that I sincerely wish was used more often in mainstream cinema. Or, to put it in more honest terms, it’s fucking brilliant.

And while we’re on the subject of things I wish were more prevalent in movies nowadays, something in the back of my head tells me that George Miller wanted to pull a fast one on the audience in the best way possible with Fury Road. The main plot centers around the movement/retrieval of women as property, something that feels like it was pulled from a MRA’s deepest fantasies, and yet this film might have some of the most active female supporting characters I have seen in a very long time. I make no qualms about the fact that I don’t really see eye-to-eye with modern feminist doctrine, mainly due to it employing a lot of “what’s good for the goose” double standards from what I’ve seen, but to go from the very uncomfortable rape scenes that the series started out with to this is mystifying. Ultimately, it’s Theron who ends up doing most of the work with Max as her backup and the Wives in tow all contribute something to the action and don’t act like the property Joe treats as them as at any point. Abbey Lee brings a heavy dose of Australian humour to the mix as The Dag, Zoe Kravitz makes up for some of her involvement in the Divergent films as the gun-savvy Toast, Riley Keough as Capable works great with Nicholas Hoult and creates one of the most natural man-woman relationships on film that isn’t overtly romantic, and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, in a move that Dark Of The Moon could have benefitted from, doesn’t do too much talking but still manages to give the film its single most bad-ass image in standing up to and staring down Immorten Joe with a gun pointed at her. Oh, and Aussie actress Megan Gale redeems her quite racist depiction of a Turk in The Water Diviner as Valkyrie, who more than lives up to her name as a strong warrior woman.

The fact that the women stand out as much as they do and potentially put the titular Max into a side role has got a lot of Men Rights Activists in a tiff… which is kind of funny, considering how this film also doesn’t sit so well with some feminists either. It’s like Gone Girl all over again, only the character(s) in question isn’t nearly as hateful. So, is this a feminist film, or more specifically the piece of feminist propaganda that people claim it is? Well, to put it simply, I don’t care. All I know is that this is a film that doesn’t waste its focal cast, which along with everything else I’ve mentioned continues the series’ tradition of likeable and weirdly understandable villains through Immorten Joe. Of course, that might be the case because this isn’t actor Hugh Keays-Byrne’s first time as a Mad Max villain, having previously played Toecutter in the original. This is a film that has female characters that, while they may have been written with their femininity at the forefront, are pro-active and actually do shit that matters in terms of the action on screen; in today’s day and age, this should be the norm, not something that people feel the need to draw explicit attention to for one reason or another.

With all of this talk about the inner workings of the writing, acting and gender politics, I haven’t yet brought up the most important part of any action movie: The action scenes. Well, as much as I’ve gushed about the Fast & Furious series previously, I’m not really all that big on action set pieces involving cars. Hell, the main reason why I like that series as much as I do now is because, since Fast Five, it’s started to distance itself from just car races. A lot of the action that takes place in this movie is on the titular Fury Road with Furiosa’s tanker against Immorten Joe, the War Boys and the speaker-laden truck carrying the firestarting rocker and yes, that eye-catcher is a prominent part of most of the action scenes. To make things even weirder, I can kind of get why he is as prominent as he is; in my head, I see him as providing a soundtrack for the army to charge into battle, adding to the macho Valhalla-driven mindset of the War Boys. This is high-octane action in every sense of the term, with lots of heavy collisions, sparks flying and fossil fuel burning however they can. Even with my diminished interest in vehicle action, this feels like a weird midway point between the other two big action movies out right now: Age Of Ultron and F&F 7. It has the high-speed ingenuity of Fast & Furious but it doesn’t venture down the same road of cartoon physics and instead plays it straight like Avengers did. All of this, backed by the mildly repetitive yet blood-pumping score of weighty drum beats and orchestral strings and choirs courtesy of Junkie XL, makes for amazing looking and feeling set pieces.

All in all, even when ignoring whatever gender message(s) could be read into this film, the writing is among some of the best I’ve seen so far this year, the acting is on point across the board with a very understated but powerful turn from Hardy as Max himself, the action scenes are extremely visceral and well put together, despite a surprising lack of gore for an MA15+ release, and the overall aesthetic stays true to its roots while still feeling fresh and up to date. In all honesty, I consider this to be a new high point for the series and, in a year that has already given audiences some truly great action flicks, this is among one of the best so far. This ranks higher than Avengers: Age Of Ultron, as this in no way feels bloated and actually managed to surpass any hype I had for it in a way that Avengers never did, but ultimately I still got emotional fulfillment out of Big Eyes; at this rate, Big Eyes is going to become this year’s Edge Of Tomorrow/cinematic roadblock. Get rid of whatever preconceptions of feminism you’re expecting to get from this and check this thing out; even as someone who isn’t massively into the series as a whole, I give this film a giant propane-spewing recommendation for action hounds and cult film lovers everywhere. Hell, even if that isn’t your thing, the writing and characters may just convert you.

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