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Director George Miller’s 1979 sleeper hit, Mad Max, gave us a grim glimpse at a very near apocalypse, where one good cop tried to uphold order in an increasingly lawless land, and paid dearly for it.  Miller followed up with The Road Warrior, which took Mad Max’s dystopic framework and cranked it up to eleven.  The world has gone completely mad, the car is king and bondage-gear clad gangs massacre anything in their path in their desperate quest for gasoline, the lifeblood of the planet.  Miller’s third entry, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome was a messy, over the top continuance of Max Rockatansky’s wanderings.

The world is a desert as far as the eye can see.  A man stands next to his powered-up V-8 Interceptor and withstands a one-sided communication with ghosts.  The conversation is interrupted by a gang of bandits who steal both car and driver away to add to the munitions and manpower of their home base, a valley of lifts, pulleys and water pumps called the Citadel.  A land of haves and have-nots, where the great unwashed are very literally that: A starving, dirty, dehydrated populace, whose only respite is the occasional momentary opening of water pipes that sees hundreds of citizens scrambling for a drop before the valve is closed.  The chosen few allowed to serve the hierarchy are males in sickly white body paint with blackened raccoon eyes.  They live and die at the service of their leader, Immortan Joe, who fills their shaven heads with dreams of a violent passage to Valhalla with Joe as their Odin.  The only women in this steampunk Asgard are the voluptuous human cows that provide mother’s milk for Joe’s precious offspring, and his harem of sylphlike wives, the most beautiful in the land, meant to breed more little Joeys.

There is one other woman of note.  As her Roman title would imply, Imperator Furiosa is captain of Joe’s guard.  The head rider in the Citadel’s convoys to other similar settlements, where “guzzolene” and bullets are exchanged for the precious water that the despot has successfully fracked from inside their mountain.  Furiosa’s word on the road is absolute and no one questions the lady with the metal arm to replace the one she’s lost somewhere, so her crew don’t suspect overmuch when a run-of-the-mill relay takes a big detour.  By the time they realise something is very wrong, Furiosa is already on the off-beaten path called Fury Road; a route plagued with bandits, bogs, and really bad weather.  Joe gives chase and his apostles jump into their vehicles of various size and weirdness to serve as his army.  One of the young devotees decides to use the captured and tortured Max as a hood ornament, kind of like the bust of a mythological goddess on the prow of a ship.  Gagged and bound to one of the surreally tricked-out Citadel vehicles, Max gets an unwanted up-close perspective on the action.  He suffers shootings, bombings, crashes, flame bursts, being plummeted into a valley of the worst weather imaginable - sandstorms, lightning, tornadoes, the works all at once - as the wild-eyed, high-as-a-kite zealot, Nux, means to capture Furiosa or die trying.  Finally shaking loose of his figurehead status, Max catches up with the lady and her cargo.  A gaggle of Joe’s wives, in various states of pregnancy, have decided to escape Joe’s clutches and head to the safety of the mythical “Green Land” of Furiosa’s birth.  Accompanied by the other lords of their respective fiefdoms (“All this for a family squabble,” grouses one obligated oligarch) and their supercars, Joe is determined to take back what’s his, while Max, Furiosa and the women must find their way to salvation and redemption, even if it means facing the demons they’ve just escaped.

Man, oh man, this is what my film going experience has been missing.  So much excitement, so much involvement, so much pure, octane-powered fun.  It’s hard to even know where to begin handing out the praise I have for this film.  Do I start with the action, which is some of the greatest, most exhilarating captured on film?  Do I open with the simple but subversive bait and switch Miller pulls with the film’s focus?  Can I go five minutes without mentioning the incredible cinematography and editing?

I think we’ll get the cars out of the way.  No Mad Max film would be complete without them; from Max’s signature Interceptor, to Furiosa’s enormous, dual-engine War Rig, and a veritable parade of custom built freak shows, Fury Road is feast for lovers of speed and steel.  Auto fanatics will recognise various bit and pieces of all sorts of different models, from Mercedes-Benz, VW Beetles, Deuce coupes, to military tanks and everything in between, reconditioned for lethal combat, like the ability to buzz saw tires, shoot spears and bullets, and throw flames.  Miller’s incorporation of the bizarre designs of the metal beasts as part of the storytelling is the truly ingenious bit:  The porcupine-like spikes covering the vehicles of the bandits lying in wait for any unfortunate rider on Fury Road suit the booby-trap laying thieves perfectly.  Breathtaking are the warriors balanced on top of long mobile poles that swing with momentum like bamboo as they try to board the War Rig from above while travelling about 200 mph.  To discover those stunts, along with many of the action set pieces were achieved with minimal or no CGI makes it even more jaw-dropping.  The pacing and editing compliments both the stuntwork and the vehicle design in that the viewer can see everything clearly (At least until they enter the storm trap) and Miller lets the action speak for itself.  While the pursuit is cut into several pieces, all together, it is one of the greatest car chases ever filmed, and I am relieved and astounded that no one died creating it.

Furiosa going home.  We don’t know much about her origins, but Furiosa remembers where she’s from; a green and safe place, the vernal opposite of the cold, cruel patriarchal desert she’s escaping.  Utterly under the thumb of Immortan Joe, as his many wives, the beautiful young women want to flee their slavery.  Each one is model thin and gorgeous, but it’s unwise to mistake them for frail or helpless.  When Max stumbles upon the group, they are divesting their lethal looking chastity belts with wire cutters.  His shotgun surely means he’s got the jump on them, right?  Nuh-uh.  Led by Furiosa, the women turn the tables on Max and leap into the fray, doing all they can to assist their one-armed leader.  No lilting violets these.  Miller renders his women beautifully.  In an interview I conducted with New Zealand director, Jane Campion, she spoke of her admiration of the strength and independence of Australian women.  I don’t know if Joe’s wives are meant to be Aussie, but Miller certainly writes them that way.  So, too the ladies of Furiosa’s Green Lands, who have survived on their own as a traveling pack.  The women’s sisterhood and support of each other in the midst of all the danger and their terror of the conflicts to come is wonderfully written.  Miller also manages to throw an ecological message in there, as the War Rig attempts to cross a dense bog; its wheels sinking in the deep mud and hindering their escape. (Side note: We spot a couple of stilt walkers traversing the swamp that put me on the mind of the movie The Dark Crystal. If a remake of that is indeed in the works, I think we just saw Miller’s pitch.)  One of the Green Lands elders carries a satchel full of seeds she kept for years, in search of a place to plant them that will take root; the soil has been ruined every place they’ve traveled.  At her advanced age, there has been nowhere.

Actresses often talk about how they’d love to play a role written for a man.  Well, it would actually do Furiosa a huge disservice to call her a transplanted male character, though the rebel warrior proceeds with a stoicness to her incredible badassery that has previously only been attributed to men.  Often female action set pieces have a showy theatricality to them that we don’t see as much with male protagonists, but Furiosa just gets on with what she does.  There’s nothing said about the fact that she –even with one arm – is a better shot than Max, you just watch it happen.  There’s no apparent battle of the sexes; there’s nothing but respect from the Citadel men who follow her.  I might’ve missed it in the relentless thrills and revving engines, but I don’t recall anyone coining any of the expletives thrown carelessly at women in films when they do something that goes against the grain.  She is just someone trying to go home and end the unfairness of the lives she and the wives endured in the Citadel.  Charlize Theron gets gritty and real with the action, selling it completely.  Smeared in diesel oil war paint and bearing a shaved head, which actually emphasises her perfect, doll-like features, one wonders why she wasn’t chosen to suffer the same fate as the wives?  Joe must have been blind if he was put off by her amputated arm.  The aloofness that sometimes radiates in Theron’s performances works perfectly here as she plays a person who’s spent her life just trying to hold it together until she can’t hold it in any longer, and even that moment isn’t mawkish or sappy. 

What we don’t get: Max, quite simply.  We have almost no identification with our purported hero and the guy in the film’s title.  While the narrative in previous stories presented Max as a folk hero in tales told by those who encountered or were saved by him, at least we knew who the main focus was.  We had some sense of his action and motivations.  Here, he’s laid out in bits and fragments; useless if you’ve not seen the first films.  We’re given a man tortured by his inability to save a little girl.  We don’t learn much else during the course of the film, and Max, never the chattiest of heroes, has more unintelligible grunts than actual coherent dialog.  He spends a good amount of the movie in a pointy bite mask to further ensure he can’t get out a word.  In the opening narration and certain scenes, I hear Tom Hardy’s muffled Bane voice more than anything else.  Max is really just along for the ride; a bystander caught up in the action who chooses a side.  Until the final act, his involvement is accidental.  Even the combat skills Max demonstrates in earlier films are not as keen here.  As Fury Road seems more a continuance than a reimagining, the casting of Hardy as the new Max makes viewers wonder at where in the timeline this chapter falls?  Hardy is clearly younger and less battle-hardened than original Max, Mel Gibson, appeared in his last sequel, Beyond Thunderdome.  By that estimation, I would place Fury Road shortly after Road Warrior (the term is used in the film) and also if it was after the third movie, Max would have to be a senior citizen.  Questionable timeline aside, it’s clear that in this Mad Max movie, Max is the last thing we’re meant to care about.  So precious is Furiosa to this telling, that one of the script’s few false, unintentionally funny steps occurs when Max must give her a convenient, ad hoc blood transfusion to try and save her life.  Had Miller not become famous (and often-copied) for the post-apocalyptic world and rambunctious action style he created in those first films and improves on astronomically here, I wonder that this would have been called a Mad Max film at all?  It takes a real man to hand a franchise over to a woman, but I hope we won’t lose our hero when all the sand settles.

I justified the focus shift as two possibilities: One, spinoff series? Expand the universe? Why not?  Max can’t be the only wanderer in the dystopian world.  Two, The Road Warrior begins and ends with a narration by the Feral Kid, a wild child rescued by Max, and so we understand the story is the telling of a legend.  It’s from the perspective of someone saved by Max and the story ends once he’s been saved and Max goes wandering again.  Perhaps that’s what’s meant here?

While I wasn’t a big fan of the first or third Mad Max chapters, The Road Warrior is brilliant and something I’d say it has over Fury Road, besides a gorgeous and sparking Mel Gibson versus an unexpectedly lacklustre and mumbling Tom Hardy, is the lack of comedy.  The Road Warrior crackled with pitch black humour, as well as the backhand - sometimes bizarre - Australian sensibility (Way overboard in Beyond Thunderdome).  That’s here to an extent, as well: Miller injects some wacky, slapstick laughs to leaven the very dire proceedings, but it’s much more sparing and sometimes buried under all the action.  Still, these quibbles can’t press pause on the pure kinetic joy of this outstanding achievement.

Mad Max: Fury Road is such an exhilarating revelation; so very much what the movies were made for, I was literally sitting there wondering what Oscars it could qualify for (And hoping it might finally convince the Academy to instate a long overdue stuntwork or action choreography category?)?  It’s a glorious symphony of violence, action, and subversive wit and wisdom that goes far beyond anything its predecessors or any recent action film has done.

Very well played, Director Miller.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

May 15th, 2015

 

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Stills Courtesy of Warner Brothers

 

 

 

 

 

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