Friday, May 22, 2015

"Retaliate first." Mad Max: Fury Road review


When I first saw a trailer for Mad Max: Fury Road I wasn't certain I would want to see the film. The trailer emphasized the breathtaking stunts, but I felt certain they would be the usual poorly-shot CGI mayhem I expect to see in an action film (I was wrong). I also recognized that Mad Max had been recast and so expected this would be an interminable reboot of the concept with no new ideas (wrong, wrong, wrong). I didn't even notice Mad Max creator George Miller was still the director.

My anticipation for the film actually grew with each thing I learned. Not a reboot? Same director? Mostly practical effects? Shot in Namibia? I was taken aback at news that I would have to see a trailer for Batman v. Superman before the film, but thankfully that bit of bad news didn't bear out. In the final week there was a backlash against the picture by the so-called Men's Rights Activists which served only to turn the film into a topic of conversation at my workplace, with more us excited to see the picture. After all, hearing that the MRA think a film is sexist is like hearing Dick Cheney call something unethical - the odds are very good that the reverse is true.

But the subject of Mad Max: Fury Road as a piece of feminist propaganda is actually worth commenting on because I think many people have it all wrong. Some call it too feminist, others not feminist enough. I'm inclined to agree with this piece at the Mary Sue which describes the film as "co-ed." Although we have many action films with a male lead and many action films with a female lead (such as Theron's own Aeon Flux), we seldom have action films with equally-depicted male and female leads. This situation is so rare that the film appears be revolutionary when it's actually pretty casual.

Some have (disdainfully or otherwise) claimed that in Fury Road Max is Furiosa's "sidekick." I can't quite agree. Yes, Furiosa is the character whose actions drive the plot of the film, but the picture holds her at a distance from the audience. Max, despite his (literal) madness is familiar to the audience and serves as a perspective into Furiosa's story. To borrow from Joss Whedon's description of his film Serenity, Fury Road is the story of Furiosa as told by Mad Max.

While Furiosa's background and motivations are withheld for most of the picture, it's interesting to see how Max himself transforms over the course of the story. Hardy portrays him as twitchy, paranoid (properly so, given the environment) and mumbling. He and Furiosa seem to use each other primarily because in their world, you don't throw anything away if it might serve you well later on, be it the surprisingly-important bolt cutters or Nux the War Boy, the materials they salvage have functions. And as Max works along Furiosa and her wards ("the wives") he becomes a little more sane. As expected, he finally steps up to be heroic just in time for the third act. His "thumb's up" to Splendid after she helps him demonstrates that he sees them as being useful (like the bolt-cutters), rather than simply a burden which must be endured (and certainly, most of the "wives" come through as the film progresses). When Max finally divulges his name to the others it certainly feels like an earned moment - that they earned the right to know his name and he earned the right to be a little more human.

Can I talk about the stunts? Because my goodness! I certainly prefer practical effects to CGI at the best of times and now Fury Road will be exhibit #1 in my case. Miller pulls off tremendously heart-stopping moments and they're all the more effective because they tend to involve real world people, vehicles, landscapes and physics. And, as the film is mostly a two hour chase scene, Miller keeps finding great new stunts to unleash - it's not the same thing over and over, nor is it simply the Road Warrior with a fresh coat of paint. Also, he saves the best for last. For a 70 year old director, Miller makes the 20/30-something directors look about as anemic as the War Boys. The imagination and tense action on display is truly special when stacked up against most of today's action pictures. Even though the film's stunts are a complex Rube Goldberg machine, I was never at a loss to understanding what was happening or to whom - Miller pulled back just enough to make his complex machine intelligible. Intelligible chaos. It must harder than I think it is to pull that off.

However, what I most enjoyed about Fury Road was how the story unfolded in an organic fashion, not through exposition and narration. The characters are defined primarily through their actions. The characters have no time to explain what's going on to each other, nor is there any real attempt made by Furiosa to win Max over to her side through a passionate speech. There is action, action, action in the best tradition of film's maxim "show, don't tell." Fury Road expects you to be savvy enough to follow the action and pick up the story as you go (and to be fair, the story's not that complicated). This is pure cinema in the tradition of silent film where expressions, body language and actions reveal who characters are. Like the characters, the film can't afford wastage.

It's been at least six years since I had this much fun at a cinema. Thank you, George Miller, for Mad Max: Fury Road. Even if this turns out to be your last Mad Max picture, I will be quite satisfied. That said, I sure wouldn't mind seeing those sequels you've mentioned...

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