Friday, May 29, 2015

Blogorium Review: Mad Max - Fury Road

 (editor's note: please forgive the relative lateness of this review - the Cap'n insisted on seeing the film a second time before turning this in.)

 Eh. It was okay, I guess. You know, nothing special.

 Nah, I'm just pulling your chain. This is the internet, where everything either rules or sucks, and there's no level of hyperbole big enough to attach to something, but even I can't argue with the fact that Fury Road is the goods. For a little while there, at the beginning, I thought I maybe had, though: it's not for very long, but right after Max (Tom Hardy) crashes his Interceptor and gets captured, your fearless Cap'n was worried he might have overhyped himself for this movie. Something about the persistent flashback, um, flashes (that might not actually be what we think they are, but more on that later) and the strangely under-cranked action as Max tries to escape the Citadel just felt... off. Like, something wasn't working. Also, it felt less like under-cranked camerawork and more like someone set the video to play at 1.5 speed but kept the audio the same. Since we're in a digital projection world, I did worry that maybe that could actually have happened.

 But then that went away and George Miller settled down and suddenly it was a Mad Max movie, and it just got better and better. And by that I also mean more bugnuts crazy until you thought it couldn't anymore and then there's the guy strapped to the wall of amplifiers on a truck who plays an electric guitar that also shoots fire while six dudes play massive drums behind him. All so you know that doom is coming. Also, his name is The Doof Warrior. That's not even the craziest character name in the film, which includes the likes of Immortan Joe, Imperator Furiosa, Rictus Erectus, The Splendid Angharad, The People Eater, and Cheedo the Fragile. All of a sudden, Max Rockatansky, The Humungus, and Aunty Entity don't seem so outlandish.

 In the Retro Review for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, I singled out how much I liked the "world building" aspect of the film, specifically Barter Town. Miller ups the ante a bit in Fury Road by giving us three hubs of post-apocalyptic civilization (even if we only see one): Gas Town, The Bullet Farm, and The Citadel. We only spend any time in The Citadel, run by warmonger Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), but we meet The People Eater (John Howard) and The Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter), who run things. No Master or Blaster here. They don't seem particularly happy to be dragged into a "domestic squabble" when Joe's lieutenant Furiosa (Charlize Theron) smuggles his wives out of The Citadel inside of her "War Rig" - a fully loaded tanker truck designed for offense and defense. Joe doesn't take kindly to Furiosa stealing his "property," and takes great exception to The Splendid Angharad (Rose Huntington-Whiteley) writing "We are not Things" inside the vault he keeps them in. His "brides" are for breeding, just like his Warboys are for fighting, and the milk maidens are for, uh, milk.

 Joe is a diseased ridden old man covered in cancerous tumors, but underneath his painted muscle shell and hidden behind his post-apocalyptic Darth Vader breathing apparatus, he's managed to brainwash the huddled masses of The Citadel into thinking he's a god. He gives them water when he feels like it, has a shrine of removable steering wheels, makes grandiose speeches and promises the equally "half life" diseased Warboys that their sacrifices will lead them to the gates of Valhalla. And they believe it. The Warboys and War Pups worship this guy, and in his defense it's not like Joe just sends out his minions to get Furiosa and the brides back. He packs into his "cars stacked on top of each other" monstrosity and leads the pack, aforementioned Doof Warrior along for the ride. Also in the convoy is a rebuilt V-8 Interceptor, freshly pilfered from The Citadel's newly acquired "blood bag": Max Rockatansky.

 I'm sure you've noticed that we got a ways into the synopsis before Max figures into the story, but that's because, like in Thunderdome, he's dragged into another power struggle that he had no part in to begin with. We just spend a little more time with the players in this particular story than we did in Thunderdome or The Road Warrior. It's not Max's fight, and this time he really doesn't want to be involved, but since he's literally strapped to the front of Warboy Nux (Nicolas Hoult)'s car, feeding him "high octane road warrior universal donor" blood, Max has no choice. He's chained to Nux, and Nux is a hard core fanatic of Immortan Joe willing to die at least three times to stop Furiosa. And Max is stuck to this idiot, to the point that he literally has to carry him around after they miraculously survive an electrical storm Furiosa drives through to lose the convoy.

 When Max finally catches up to the actual protagonists, there's a funny moment where Miller plays with the concept of the "male gaze" in introducing the "brides": Immortan Joe keeps women who look like supermodels and has them all in similarly scantily clad white... well, I guess cloth would be the right description. It's not really clothes. Max sees Splendid drinking, to the point where she's soaking wet, but it becomes clear very quickly that his (and the camera's) gaze is directed at the water, not the post-apocalyptic wet-shirt contest on display. And then there's a fight, because Max decides to hold them at gunpoint. The ladies have been using a bolt cutter to remove chastity belts that give the term "vagina dentate" a new meaning, and after a drink, he wants to lose some Nux dead weight. Furiosa, robot arm detached, doesn't take kindly to this, and a smarter than usual struggle involving Max, Furiosa, the brides, Nux, and the chain ensues. But Max isn't interested in killing anybody. He just wants out - this isn't his fight, but he'll take your War Rig, thanks.

 Some folks have complained that Max is more of a supporting character in Fury Road, and that it's unfair to have his name in the title since Furiosa is more or less the protagonist of the film. However, the story isn't that much different than the way The Road Warrior or Beyond Thunderdome are structured: Max travels the wasteland, runs into trouble, and reluctantly helps a group of survivors before taking off again on his own (SPOILER for The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome). The difference between those films and Fury Road is that we spend most of the expository period with Max, whereas in this one there's a lengthy period of time where he has little or no agency. Max is a prisoner all the way up until he wrestles the pistol away from Furiosa, and when her "kill switch" shuts down the War Rig, he's essentially at her mercy. Max doesn't so much agree to help them as he does go along for the ride, eventually deciding to do the right thing when they pass through the canyons.

 (MILD SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT: There's an interesting, if underdeveloped parallel between Joe's obsession with his "property" and Max's continued protestation about the Warboys stealing what's belongs to him. He repeatedly shouts to the driver of his Interceptor that it's "mine," and the first thing he does after he's freed from Nux is take his jacket back. There's not really any kind of thematic resolution to being fixated on "things" for Max - the Interceptor is destroyed, but he keeps his jacket, and he's mostly replaced his stuff by the time he kills the Bullet Farmer)

 What follows is a mostly non-stop chase in one direction, and then a chase back, after the "Green Place" Furiosa promised the brides no longer exists. It's actually impressive to consider that a film with this much uninterrupted action has enough of a plot that I'm leaving out everything that happens after the "wetlands"

 I'm going to address and sidestep the "is this a reboot / is this a prequel" argument by saying that if Furiosa hasn't seen the Vuvalini in "7,000 days" - roughly twenty years and that Max was still a cop before the world collapsed, then maybe Fury Road is both. And by that I mean that since Miller (Happy Feet) has been working on this Mad Max film since 2003 (when it almost happened) that Furiosa could have been kidnapped post-apocalypse and taken to The Citadel while, let's say, The Road Warrior was happening. You could argue that a Mel Gibson-aged Max would have made sense in that timeline, while a Tom Hardy Max seems, um, a little young. And not just because he's three years younger than Theron. But since we have the math we have in Fury Road and it at the very least directly acknowledges Mad Max, let's just agree that none of them have to be sequels and are all stories set in the Wasteland. Chronology dodge activated.

 That said, it was nice to have tiny, unobtrusive nods to the other Mad Max movies (and Peter Weir's The Cars That Ate Paris), ones that you might not have noticed. The music box one of the "wives" is playing with. The shot of Toecutter's eyes when Max is dreaming in the rig. My favorite is the Thunderdome reference, when Max is collecting weapons from Furiosa and completely misses the knife hidden in something else. They don't draw attention to themselves, but they're there. Miller's idea of "fan service" is to remind you of what world you're in without saying "hey, everybody, remember The Road Warrior, that movie was really cool!" Like everything else, it's about the economy of storytelling: showing, not telling. We learn a lot about the Citadel and the various factions in Fury Road without exposition dumps.

 Take, for example, the moment that actually launches Fury Road: Furiosa's sudden turn left on the road to Gas Town. In most movies where someone working for a big bad guy decides to betray them, the people accompanying the "traitor" try to stop them, much to their detriment. What happens instead in Fury Road is an insight into the mentality of the War Boys. Without being told that they obey their power structure without question, we understand that they wouldn't dare question Furiosa when she says they're taking a "detour," even though she provides them with no explanation whatsoever. They fight for her and protect her, and end up dying to defend her mission without even knowing what she's trying to do.

 It's the same unquestioning loyalty Nux has for Immortan Joe for the first half of the film, and even though we don't know much about Furiosa or Joe, we know that no matter what they decide, the War Boys support them. Nux is functionally our gateway into the mindset of Warboys, who are so naïve and sheltered that he doesn't even know what a tree is. The brides, in contrast, seem to have a better understanding of Immortan Joe's propaganda, but some of them (Cheedo in particular) believe he's capable of forgiveness in the same way they are. They stop Furiosa from killing Nux and convince her (and Max) to let him help, and their mercy contributes to the success of their plan. They also contrast well with the Vuvalini, the tribe of warriors Furiosa comes from. There's a conversation between The Dag (Abbey Lee) and the Keeper of the Seeds (Melissa Jaffer) where the former expresses surprise at the latter's boast she's killed everyone she met in the wasteland. "I thought you'd be above all that," she muses.

 While I remain partial to The Humungus and admire the ambiguous threat that is Aunty, Immortan Joe is quickly rising on the list of "Mad Max villains." He's arguably just a combination of Humungus and Wez into one character, with a much better power structure, but Keays-Byrne conveys a sense of entitled insanity using only his eyes most of the film. He doesn't ever actually do anything other than drive, but the aggregate effect of his influence over the brides and the Warboys is palpable throughout the film. It raises the question of how someone so charismatic and control oriented would allow Furiosa to meet with the Rock Riders in the first place. He trusts her, and it's clear she's been in the Citadel since a very young age, but it seems unlikely that he authorizes trips anywhere other than Gas Town or the Bullet Farm. I'd also like to mention former WWE Smackdown Superstar Nathan Jones as Rictus Erectus, Immortan Joes' healthiest son (when you see Corpus Colossus, that will make more sense), who has a fantastic moment of pride when he announces that he had a baby brother, who was "perfect in every way!" He's surprisingly touching as the "heavy" of this film.

 I'll get to Tom Hardy in a moment, but there's no point in discussing the actors in Fury Road without taking some time to appreciate what Charlize Theron does as Furiosa. She emerges early in the film as fully formed, even though she has arguably less back story than even Max. We know Max - we've seen him before - but Furiosa effortlessly takes the stage and keeps the stakes high. Theron balances a steely determination with eyes that reflect doubt at every turn. She's not making a mistake in what she's doing, but is how she's doing it going to work? Can she really trust Max or Nux, or are they just going to hinder her? We know very little about her relationship with Immortan Joe - he obviously trusts his Imperator, to a fault, but if she's been in the Citadel since a very young age, in what capacity? Was Furiosa a bride before she lost her arm? How did she lose it? What about the skeleton stencil on the War Rig? Is that some kind of reference? There's a lot to wonder about them, all of which comes to a head when she growls "remember me" near the end of the film. What she's seeking "redemption" for isn't always clear, but we want her to find it, and so does Max.

 Oddly enough, Tom Hardy left less of an impression on me the first time I saw Fury Road. It wasn't until the second viewing that I really paid attention to Max, knowing where Furiosa's story was heading. Hardy has a strange balancing act, not quite sounding like Mel Gibson (or even Australian, at times), but still playing a character we know. I'm not going to lie that sometimes his pronunciation choices sounds just a little like Bane, but it was less distracting the second time. He's more chatty when tied to the front of Nux's car than I would have expected, but it's drowned out by the noise surrounding him. He's less chatty in the rest of the film, speaking more frequently through action (although the best moment in the movie happens off-screen). Hardy seems a little hampered by a character development I'll mention in a bit, but overall he assumes the role of Max well. It would have been interesting to see Gibson playing this part, but I think it might have radically changed the way audiences react to Max's fight with Furiosa.

Even after seeing the film for a second time, the feeling I came out with was still one of admiration. It's rare to see an action film that's so carefully constructed, so clearly thought out. These days I'll be happy for one that unobtrusively relies on quick edits or CG heavy sequences (Furious 7, I'm looking at you), but to see a film with action that's easy to follow and is still dynamic is really impressive. Georg Miller conveys his information visually, more so in Fury Road than in any of the other Mad Max films. He expands on the concept of post-apocalyptic "world building," but never lets it detract from the story. Everything you learn about the world surrounding the Citadel comes from seeing it and how the characters react. Something as simple as the people in stilts wandering through a radioactive swamp is evocative of a world we may never explore again. All of the tribes in the film are fully realized, even if we only get brief glimpses of them. It really is something to behold.

The one exception to this is an out of place reliance on Max's hallucinations / dreams about the people he couldn't save. I don't necessarily mind explaining to an audience thirty years later why the character is "mad," but the haunted quality is sometimes distracting from the immediacy of Fury Road. If I'm going to pick nits here, this is a recurrent them in Fury Road almost exclusively - Max never addresses things like this in The Road Warrior or Beyond Thunderdome. He doesn't say much of anything about his life "before" in either film, but I suppose if we're operating on the premise that there's no real chronology here, I can live with it. It keeps him alive at least once and is (mostly) resolved before he gets back to the Citadel, but even after the second viewing it sticks out to me. If the series continues - and announcements aside, there's no guarantee of that - I wouldn't miss dropping this version of "Mad" Max.

 Of course, it's nice that Mad Max: Fury Road is technically a reboot that's content to be self contained. In an age where every movie needs to have an opening for a trilogy or a spin-off, I find it refreshing that as much as I like Furiosa, we've probably seen as much of her as we'll ever seen. Knowing Miller's penchant for Mad Max continuity, it's very unlikely that a major character - even one as memorable as hers - will appear again. There's plenty of Wasteland to explore, more towns and world building, and while it doesn't feel like audiences I saw the film with really embraced Fury Road (half empty auditoriums will give you that impression), maybe there's a chance for one more down the line. If not, there are now three great Mad Max movies, and Thunderdome, which I think is still mostly pretty good. I can't complain about that. Hell, I might go see it on the big screen one more time - if you're going to see it (and you should), you owe it to yourself to see it as large as possible.

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