Saturday, May 16, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road Review

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The reign of the comic book movie is over. If you don't believe me, wait till you see Mad Max: Fury Road. Thirty years after the release of Beyond Thunderdome, the Mad Max franchise has returned to wipe away every conception you thought about blockbuster filmmaking. Pulverizing, breathtaking and faster than an NBA fast break, Fury Road is unlike anything you've ever seen. It's also perhaps the greatest action film to ever see the light of day, a roller coaster ride that puts every other blockbuster on notice from here on in. The Age of Ultron? Give way to the age of the Mad.

Though it's the fourth film in George Miller's cult franchise, Fury Road seems to be neither a sequel, a prequel or a remake, though there are hints it takes place somewhere between The Road Warrior and Thunderdome. As per usual, the story takes place in a post apocalyptic wasteland, a combination of endless desert and the world's most dangerous punk rock concert. Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), former cop turned drifter, has been captured by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the gruesome, tyrannical ruler of a city known as The Citadel, one of the last places left on earth to contain water. Almost immediately, Max finds himself drawn into Joe's newest conflict; Joe is chasing his lieutenant, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who has smuggled Joe's five wives (Rosie Huntington-Whitely, Zoe Kravitz, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee and Courtney Eaton) out of The Citadel in search for a mysterious Haven known as the "Green Place". Initially attached as a blood bag of sorts to a war boy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult), Max soon finds himself reluctantly helping Furiosa and her party as they attempt to outrun Joe's army of war boys. If that doesn't seem like much of a plot, that's because it isn't. In the end however, that's all that's needed.

Nicholas Hoult as Nux
It's normal protocol for the star of any film to be an actor/actress. However, the star of Fury Road is without a doubt it's director, George Miller. The now 70 year old Australian doctor turned director had never intended to stretch Mad Max past its original trilogy, but an idea formed between 1998 and 2000 convinced him there was one more story to tell (there may in fact be more than one, as Miller has stated he has hopes for sequels should Fury Road strike box office gold). What followed was a decade of development hell, as 9/11, the decline of the American dollar, location issues and original Mad Max star Mel Gibson going bat shit insane conspired to keep Fury Road from getting off the ground. That Miller was even able to start production for the film in 2012 is a minor miracle. As it turns out, it was also possibly the best thing for him. 

To say that Fury Road is a sight to behold is the understatement of eternity. No film since Avatar has looked good as this one does, and no film has brought such unrelenting action since Aliens. Many critics have said that Fury Road's action never stops, and while that's not entirely accurate, Miller and his crew do their best to keep everything moving. The film opens with a chase, spends all but fifteen minutes in the mid section with a chase and ends with, well a chase. Most impressive is that the film contains little to no special effects, save for a breathtaking scene that takes place in the middle of a sandstorm and certain shots that are more colorized than others (the night scenes in particular feature this). Everything you see is real life car wrecks and stunt work, and the authenticity Miller and his cinematographer John Seale (the Oscar winner who came out of retirement for this film) achieve helps elevate the experience in a way other recent blockbusters haven't. On technical ability alone, Fury Road would be a masterpiece.

Charlize Theron and Miller on the Fury Road set
What elevates it further however is Miller's storytelling. Despite a very simple plot and a minimal amount of dialog, Fury Road's execution is some of the most compelling work of any film you've seen recently. Each character is fully developed, from hero to villain, lead to least important character. Miller understands that dialog doesn't necessarily make a compelling performance, and relies on his performer's ticks and mannerisms to take the film to the promise land. It works. A lot been made about how feminist Fury Road is, especially in the wake of those hilariously stupid Men's Right Activists taking a moment to pause The Expendables 3 to boycott the film. While it's true that Fury Road sports some of the strongest female characters we've seen in recent memory, it's hardly surprising. Miller's original Mad Max treated its female characters quite well (Joanne Samuel, in my opinion, was the best part of the original as Max's feisty, fun wife), not to mention that this is the same man that once directed The Witches of Eastwick, a film with three female leads. That people are this shocked to see a film with such strongly written and portrayed females should be a wakeup call for how women are being treated with roles these days.

Tom Hardy as Mad Max

With former star Mel Gibson now too old and too loathed to portray the character that made him a star, Miller was forced to find a new actor to essay everyone's favorite damaged Road Warrior. Tom Hardy was a great choice by Miller, despite the fact that the role doesn't require Hardy to go full out. Max has always been a better idea than a character, someone who could easily lead the way while the film focused on its action and themes. This is no different here, as Hardy is more or less just asked to grunt, gaze and fight, letting the action stand out. Not that there's anything wrong with that, and like Gibson before him, Hardy handles the role just fine. The same goes for Hugh Reays-Byrne as the villainous Immortan Joe, who isn't anywhere close to a complex villain, yet works just fine as a character to absolutely despise. The most interesting thing about Byrne is that this is his second go around in the Mad Max universe, having played the villain Toecutter in the original film. It appears that Joe and Toecutter are indeed two separate characters, but memories of Toecutter's fate in the original film, combined with Joe's mangled state in Fury Road, do at least make you wonder.

The standout performances  belong to the two other main characters and one minor one. Charlize Theron deserves an Oscar for her performance as Furiosa, the most impressive female action hero since Linda Hamilton's Sarah Conner in Terminator 2. Like Hardy, Theron doesn't say much, but she doesn't have to; her eyes (filled with regret, anger and a lifetime of sadness) tell us a story that I'm still trying to put together. Not since John Wayne in The Searchers has a performer done as good a job creating a back story that can't be spelled out like Theron does here. Meanwhile, Nicholas Hoult is a scene stealer as Nux, providing the film with many of its best lines and its most radical character transformation. Hoult starts off Fury Road as a psychopath, willing to take his own life in the name of Immortan Joe's maddening quest. By the end of it, he has transformed into a three dimensional character with a heart bigger than anyone thought. His interactions with Riley Keough's Capable (Keough is the granddaughter of Elvis by the way) are surprisingly tender, and the closest thing Fury Road gets to romance. Finally, the biggest shock and maybe the second performance of the film belongs to Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Yes, the model turned actress whose only screen credit prior to this film was Transformers: Dark of the Moon (one of the worst films I've ever seen) gives what can only be described as a breakout performance. Tough, charismatic and astonishingly beautiful, Huntington-Whiteley couldn't be more captivating as the pregnant leader of Joe's wives. At no point when she was on screen could I take my eyes off her, and I expect her performance here will lead to her becoming a star.

Rosie Huntington-Whitely as The Splendid

Bottom Line: Mad Max: Fury Road will more than likely not make nearly as much as Avengers: Age of Ultron will. What a crying shame, for it dwarfs anything Marvel has made recently, including their best work. Make no mistake, Fury Road is George Miller's masterpiece; it's the best of the Mad Max franchise, the best action film of the past twenty years (and perhaps the best ever) and the best film released thus far this year. If there's any justice, the Academy Awards will let go of their biases towards the action genre and nominate Fury Road for Best Picture come this winter. Regardless of whether they do or not, do not, I repeat, do not miss this film. Spend your money, take a seat, and get ready for the ride of your life.

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