Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Starring Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron
Co-written and Directed by George Miller

When is a sequel not a sequel?  When is a remake not a remake?  When is a "reboot" not a reboot?  Come to think of it, what exactly constitutes a reboot anyway?  "Mad Max: Fury Road" is all of the above, but also none of the above - only turned up to eleven.  It doesn't directly follow on from or refer to the events depicted in the last film in the series, "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome", which was released 30 years previously.  It doesn't retell the story of 1979's original "Mad Max", nor does it embark on a different version of that tragic 'origin' story.  It simply exists in the same fictional universe as that first trilogy, features the same eponymous hero, and drives the same violent dusty highways.  Tom Hardy takes on the role of Max Rockatansky, the part which gave Mel Gibson his big-screen break, and there are no contrivances to link this directly with the originals, suggesting that this is the other Max's son, for example.  We're just given the character and it's up to the filmmakers to convince us that this is the same person.  Largely, they succeed.

Complexity of plot was never a hallmark of this series.  Emphasis was instead placed on atmosphere, tension, exhilaration, and a vivid creation of a desperate environment and existence.  Latterly the films became celebrated for their elaborate, extended vehicular chase scenes, akin to automotive running battles.  "Fury Road" most resembles "Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior" (see review below).  Or, more specifically, the final third of it.  This film opens with a thumbnail introduction to the protagonist, roaming the wastelands alone, dishevelled, and reduced to eating raw lizard.  His world, he tells us in voiceover, is one of "fire and blood".  He is a "road warrior, searching for a righteous cause... it was hard to know who was more crazy, me... or everyone else."  Almost immediately he is set upon by a band of white-skinned scavengers, dragged away, and taken to their base location, a miniature city of sorts.  This is the Citadel of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the Toecutter in the original film), a ruthless overlord who rules over a community of survivors.  Encased in a respirator mask decorated with animal teeth, and body armour which hides his pox-scarred body and face, Immortan keeps the populace in check by rationing their water, warning them against becoming addicted to it, whilst he and his lackeys live in luxury.  The white-skinned young men are the 'War Boys', Immortan's troops, whom he controls with tatantalizing promises of eternal glory at the gates of Valhalla.  As a physically healthy universal donor, Max's fate is to be used as a 'blood bag', as he is hooked up to a sick War Boy, Nux (Nicholas Hoult).  Immortan has dispatched Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) in a 'War Rig', a fearsome, heavily armoured tanker, to collect precious gasoline from the neigbouring refinery at Gas Town.  But she has turned off her course, heading into hostile territory, smuggling Joe's five breeding-wives with her.  An army of War Boys sets off after her to reclaim the women, one of whom is pregnant; Max, still plugged into Nux, finds himself along for the ride too.  Thus, pursuit is essentially the order of the day for the rest of the film.  But what spectacular pursuit.

Were it simply a lengthy car chase movie, there wouldn't be much to take from this film.  Certainly, those chase scenes are amazing, a wild storm of flamethrowers and firebombs, crossbows and bullets, grinding wheels, fearsome juggernauts, and an incredible array of hybrid vehicles.  But these sounds and images are broadcast in the context of a unique, thrillingly realised world, one that is utterly bizarre.  It's a world in which a man washes his bloodied face not with water, but with mother's milk.  Where the chasing pack has room for a bank of drummers beating time like slaves on a Roman galleon, and for a masked musician called The Doof Warrior (iOTA back in the real world) whose electric guitar shoots jets of flame as it booms out through phalanx of speakers mounted on the back of the truck, augmenting the techno-laced score by Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL).  And where the last-act allies turn out to be a gang of geriatric bikie chicks.

This emphasis on visceral thrills and spills does not discount that this film belongs to the actors.  Tom Hardy, yet again, shows why he is unquestionably one of the finest actors working today.  He fully invades this role, and within minutes the thought that it was made iconic by another actor is gone.  He invokes Gibson just enough and at just the right times, but this Max is all his.  He doesn't have much to say, no great soliloquies here, but Max never did (16 lines in all, in "The Road Warrior").  So when he does speak, it counts.   But it's typically nihilistic; "hope is a mistake", he tells one character.  "If you can't fix what's broken... you'll go insane".  It could be argued that for all Max's minimalism, the true protagonist is Theron's Furiosa.  One-armed, sporting a mechanical prosthetic, crew-cut, black grease smeared in a mask around her eyes like war paint, Furiosa is a sight to see and a force to be cautious around.  She's the instigator of the action and the dominant presence, especially in the first movement of the picture, at a time when Max is largely impotent, muzzled and chained.  There's a wonderful game of oneupmanship (onewomanupmanship?) between Max and Furiosa shortly after he is brought on board the rig, as they both by turns seek to dictate the terms of their common flight.  A gradual shared arc develops between them, as they go from outright animosity, to cautious acceptance, to determined collaboration in search of a mutual goal.  Furiosa's driving aim is to return to the place where she was born, the 'Green Place', from which she was taken as a child, and to provide sanctuary for the unfortunate young enslaved girls; Max... well his is just to get to the next place, wherever that is.  Nic Hoult, superb and barely recognisable as the wild and frantic Nux gives an amazing performance (to add to his brilliant turn in "Warm Bodies").  His character is probably the one that thinks and changes the most over the course of the story.

And then there are the wives.  They may be somewhat under-dressed (it is the desert, after all) but this is no glamour magazine photo shoot.  They are, essentially, sex slaves, but these ladies are hardened by their environment, as they have to be, and use their wiles to survive.  At one point, The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whitely), heavily pregnant with Joe's child, thrusts her bulging belly at her pursuers, shielding and protecting her companions.  The film's feminist credentials have understandably become something of a talking point.  Certain - male - critics have dismissed "Fury Road" as nothing more than "Trojan Horse" feminist propaganda, gatecrashing the testosterone party.  "No one barks orders at Mad Max", bleated blogger Aaron Cleary, impotently.  Other commentators, such as Sasha James take a different perspective, one which feels much more appropriate.  Ultimately it gives pause for thought, which is always an added bonus in a summer blockbuster, but it's not worth obsessing over because it doesn't interrupt the rush of blood to the head that this movie provides.  So what if Furiosa uses Max's shoulder as a rest for her gun (when he's just wasted vital bullets on a missed killshot)?  It's essential to the story that it's she who leads the wives towards their liberty, not Max; he never was a knight in shining armour, no matter how much other characters might have wanted him to be.  His gradual acceptance of the people around him here speaks volumes.  Hardy's is a mellower Max than Gibson's; maybe he's just wearied now that he's further down the road.  

As is to be expected from a film in this franchise, the off-kilter nature of this world is enlivened no end by the deliciously off-the-wall character names, from the Wives - Angharad's companions are Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eaton), The Dag (Abbey Lee), Capable (Riley Keough) and best of all, Toast the Knowing (Zoe Kravitz) - to Immortan's array of underlings, Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones), Slit (Josh Helman), The Organic Mechanic (Angus Sampson), The Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter) and The People Eater (John Howard).  Max, it seems, is the only sanely named character on show.  All are set against an almost tangible backdrop.  The stunning cinematography by John Seale (whose credits range from "Witness" and "Rain Man" to "The English Patient" and beyond) renders the desolate Namibian landscape, standing in for Australia, in vigourous ochre by day, and electric blue by night.  To say that the film is slightly too long is not the point; it's doesn't feel too long, and the pace barely lets up - even in the quiet moments it's tense.  Rather, given its comparatively slender narrative, it feels as if there are many more ideas bubbling away here which could have borne closer inspection.  Presumably - hopefully - the worldwide box-office takings have secured a future for this incarnation of our anti-hero, in which further corners of his world can be explored.  "Mad Max: Fury Road" is unlike anything else seen in cinemas this year.  Counter-intuitively, its DNA is familiar, but at the same time it is utterly original.


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