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Non-Review Review: Mad Max – Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road is a live action cartoon in the best possible sense.

It is a movie that seems like an incredible gamble. Warner Brothers essentially gave director George miller $150m and let him loose in the Namib Desert to make a belated follow-up to his cult Mad Max trilogy. There is precious little sanitation here, no sense of order. It seems like Mad Max: Fury Road was never screened in front of focus groups, as if Miller never really received any studio notes that weren’t ringing endorsements or encouragement. Mad Max: Fury Road would be a strange film under any circumstances, but it’s a particularly strange summer blockbuster.

Just deserts...

Just deserts…

But it works.

Mad Max: Fury Road is gloriously gonzo, an extended two-hour car chase across a desert wasteland where it seems like dialogue is a commodity as scarce as oil or water. The script is surprisingly light on exposition, trusting the audience to pick up everything that it needs from descriptive nouns like “the Bullet Farmer” or “the People Eater.” The film makes no real nods towards conventional popcorn film-making, but is all the more effective for it. It is a movie that is utterly unashamed of its pulpy sensibilities, offering a live action post-apocalyptic Wacky Races.

Front and centre...

Front and centre…

Momentum is a beautiful thing. If you can build up enough speed, you can accomplish wonders. Mad Max: Fury Road has momentum to spare. It is basically one long car chase that begins with our eponymous hero desperately fleeing barbarians in the wasteland, a chase that never really lets up. There are brief interludes and interruptions, but those never last more than a few minutes. The chase changes form; it starts in a car, briefly becomes an on-foot chase, and then escalates to a big rig and convey escapade.

Mad Max: Fury Road never really stops to catch its breath. There is never a clumsy exposition dump or lingering personal exchange. There is a ruthless efficiency to the construction of Mad Max: Fury Road, as if the resources going into making the film are just as scarce as those depicted in the film; every single dollar and every ounce of sweat appears on screen in some form or another. It is a striking accomplishment, and all the more compelling for the fact that Mad Max: Fury Road never lets itself slow down for a victory lap.

Making it rain...

Making it rain…

The movie never gets bogged down in the particulars of its apocalypse or the details of the post-apocalyptic wasteland. George Miller conveys all the essential information through punky visuals, with the movie’s dialogue often lyrical or poetic instead of explanatory or expository. The script uses a host of post-apocalyptic jargon, but with words strung together in evocative ways. This is not meaningless techno-babble, but instead the use of words to add depth or shading to an image already depicted on screen.

There is a poignancy and effectiveness to this post-apocalyptic vision. Fury Road never labours its points, because it never loses sight of its central and extended chase. At the same time, George Miller’s post-apocalyptic vision seems even more tangible in 2015 than it did in 1979, 1981 or 1985. Thirty years later, this bleak ravaged future seems easier to accept. Miller never puts too much emphasis on his criticisms of excessive consumerism or capitalism; he never leans too hard on the environmental subtext. After all, the script is not subtle. It is not meant to be.

Leaps and bounds...

Leaps and bounds…

The eponymous character is mostly silent; the strong and stoic type. Much of Fury Road feels hyper-real, as if the audience is watching an animation that just happens to feature real actors and an impressive amount of practical effects. George Miller latches on to the same sort of logic that drives Sam Raimi’s work, a curiosity about the application of cartoon physics to the real world. A number of the movie’s most effective stunt sequences casually play with the characters as if they are cogs in some sort of cosmic Rube Goldberg machine.

Early on, Max is chained to another character during a tense fight scene, with the two characters tugging and bouncing off one another in the midst of all this chaos. At several points – particularly at the start and at the climax – Max finds himself holding on to a giant swinging pendulum that carries him so close to safety only to pull him even further away. During certain action scenes involving his cast, it seems like Miller has sliced out every eighth frame; the result is that the actions of the cast take on an almost imperceptible jilt, pushing them into the uncanny valley.

Here there be monsters...

Here there be monsters…

Tom Hardy cleverly plays into this aspect of the film. There is an exaggerated physicality to his performance, with Hardy communicating primarily through grunts and gestures as opposed to dialogue. A simple thumbs up conveys all the requisite information, as does a hand extended in a gesture of friendship. In what might be a sly nod to his role in The Dark Knight Rises, Hardy spends a significant portion of the film with an impractical (and imposing) mask over his mouth. The movie seems to suggest that it’s not necessarily key to Max’s identity.

That said, George Miller does something genuinely interesting with Fury Road. Although Max has the brand recognition, he is not really the central character of the narrative. The opening credits give Tom Hardy equal billing with Charlize Theron (and even list her name higher), while it frequently seems that Max has wandered into the story of Imperator Furiosa. Furiosa provides the movie’s central drive, both literally and figuratively – it is Furiosa who provides the big rig at the heart of the story and who also sets the movie’s course.

The Fast and the Furiosa...

The Fast and the Furiosa…

Fury Road has a decidedly feminist undertone to it, with the movie returning time and time again to the idea of men seeking to control women’s bodies. Men become undeniably associated with destruction and violence, while women are frequently linked to survival and life. It is a very daring decision for Miller to make with a property that takes its name from the male protagonist, and it is fascinating to see the writer and director commit so thoroughly to the idea. After all, the proposed sequel – Mad Max: Furiosa – sees Furiosa claiming her own space in the title.

The decision to give George Miller complete control of the project was a gamble that paid off. Contemporary Hollywood has been obsessed with remaking and reimaging cult classic properties like Total Recall or Robocop. However, these reimaginings inevitably strip out what made these science-fiction visions so unique in the first place. Remaking a Paul Verhoeven film for the mass market seems to miss the point of a Paul Verhoeven movie. There is something counter-intuitive about seeking to capitalise on a beloved film by taking away what makes it so beloved.

That's all I can sands till I can't sands no more...

That’s all I can sands till I can’t sands no more…

It would be easy to sanitise or polish a property like Mad Max so all the jagged edges are smoothed away, but that would destroy anything that made it Mad Max in the first place. Instead, George Miller is trusted with a great cast and a massive budget to simply create more of what viewers found so compelling about his original vision. It is a bold choice, one that would seem to run against the business logic of a massive investment like this, but one that pays creative dividends. Fury Road is a brilliant revival of a classic concept.

Fury Road is a bold film and a fascinating accomplishment. It is beautifully constructed and incredibly energetic. There is an exuberance and drive to Fury Road that is almost impossible to resist, a momentum that seems to pull the audience into its slipstream. It seems likely that Fury Road will be the year’s strangest summer blockbuster. It might also be the best.

15 Responses

  1. Yay Mad Max now on to more serious business.

    Darren, I am officially declaring myself as your biggest fan.

  2. Great review! It’s great reading all the positive reviews. I loved this so much! 🙂

  3. Very well written review so I hate to compete. All I can say is that I found it to be the silliest and dumbest movie I have seen in a while. For me, I think you hit it on the head calling it “a live action post-apocalyptic Wacky Races.”

    • Keith, don’t worry about! Different strokes for different folks. I can understand why it wouldn’t be everybody’s cup of tea. (I’m actually really proud of the “a live action post-apocalyptic Wacky Races” description, because I suspect your response to that description will hint at your response to the film.)

      I think the silliness is part of the charm. I think there’s a lot going on, but it’s done so wonderfully artfully. And thanks for the kind words!

  4. Cool review yo. I think the film is bloody awesome. From a technical and visual standpoint it is one of the finest films in the action genre in ages. The sense of speed, style, choreography, cinematography and insanity involved is beautiful. However, for me I didn’t leave the cinema saying “best. film. ever.” It was really awesome, but I think I expected a bit more considering the hype and early reviews. For me it’s an 8.5/10

    • I do think the hype around the film can be somewhat counterproductive. But I really do think that it is a fantastic piece of work. I think how it accomplishes what it wants to accomplish is quite startling.

  5. Great review. Who would have thought this would have been this good?
    Just fun bombastic film from start to finish 😀

  6. Nice review! I haven’t seen the originals however I thought this one was a very entertaining film.

    • I’d recommend Road Warrior if you want to dip your toe into the original trilogy. It’s the best of the bunch and very much a prototype for Fury Road.

  7. Along with Ex_Machina my favourite film of the year. I bought the soundtrack CD and every time I listen to it, it takes me right back into the movie – which I believe is the sign of a great soundtrack. I love the return to (mainly) physical special effects rather than a lot of CG. Those critics who say that there is no plot is are wrong. There is a plot – it is just a simple one. With all that action you don’t need a complicated plot.

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