Monday, May 18, 2015

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

Far be it from me to rain on the critical parade that has received Mad Max: Fury Road as the long-awaited salvation of big-budget blockbusters. There is, to be sure, much to be complimented on Australian director George Miller's return to the franchise that made his name - and yes, Fury Road is in fact the blockbuster you despaired Hollywood could still do, marrying technical prowess, a classical sense of action and smart ideas.

     But - and this is important - even though Fury Road is good, it's only because the standard has been lowered that it looks this good. When what you're up against is the cookie-cutter, marketing-led "Marvel universe" and the outlandish tongue-in-cheek video game of Fast & Furious 7, rising above it won't be too hard.

     For sure, Mr. Miller's fourth installment in the Mad Max series, after a 30-year absence, does more than "just" rise above. A brutal, nasty, take-no-prisoners post-apocalyptic thrill ride, the new film literally throws you down the rabbit hole in the first 15 minutes with little regard for niceties or back story. Tag, you're it, put up or shut up, off you go. And there's no time to catch your breath until the film is one hour in.

     To his credit, this impressively shot, no-nonsense actioner does not look at all like the work of a 70-year old Hollywood grandee who's spent the past few years doing kid-friendly stuff like Babe or Happy Feet. Fury Road is Mr. Miller unleashing his very peculiar brand of Australian-vintage nastiness, channeling the genuinely unpredictable tension of Wolf Creek or Wake in Fright into the kamikaze take-it-or-leave-it concept of what is still the series' best film, 1981's Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. 

     Simultaneously return to the original universe and modern-day reboot, with Tom Hardy taking over Mel Gibson in the lead role, the new film suggests the series could become a post-apocalyptic parent to the adventures of the blind samurai Zatoichi, with individual self-contained adventures set in an overarching universe - and Mr. Miller has already said he has further tales planned in the series. In that sense, it's not that far from a comic-book series, only not at all concerned with hitting specific demographics or aiming for a "four-quadrant" maximum-common-denominator, watered-down attempt. Quite the opposite: Fury Road has no problem with being violent, grotesque, excessive, loud, noisy, foul; it even makes them its raison d'être, better to take the viewer by surprise once the narrative downshifts, one hour in, and reveals its true approach.

     Initially propelled by the steely terseness of Charlize Theron, impeccable as a daredevil driver escaping the clutches of the tyrannical Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) with a precious cargo of young women, Fury Road eventually reveals itself as a futuristic, gas-guzzling western about pioneers navigating a dangerous new frontier. Max Rockatansky (Mr. Hardy), the nominal hero, is more of a "lonesome stranger", the strong silent type that travels the land purely looking to survive but finding himself drawn into situations where he takes the side of good; the man you want to be on your side when the chips are down. Ms. Theron's Furiosa is the strong-willed pioneer woman leading a convoy of women looking to find an oasis in a dry, parched land, trying to dodge the "indians" that want to recapture them - only here, the indians are a patriarchal power elite controlling access to natural resources, and the women are striking out for their freedom from tyranny.

     By this point, you're acclimatised to the harsh nature of the film's kill-or-be-killed setting and approach. Fury Road unfolds as that rare blockbuster that wants to have its cake and eat it as well, a combination of genre film tropes that never forgets the rooting of genre in reality. Whether due to global warming, over-pollution, technology breakdown or resource scarcity, the post-apocalyptic universe of Mad Max isn't far from, say, Cormac McCarthy's desolate vision in The Road: it's simply used as a setting for a different type of storytelling in the shape of a pro-active actioner about people taking matters in their own hands, about the underdogs fighting back. Which is, at the same time, extremely Antipodean in its can-do attitude as much as it is global in the resonance of the current state of civil society.

     Still, as I said before, that doesn't make Fury Road a masterpiece: the film's loud, non-stop relentlessness (especially when seen in 3D large-format IMAX screens) can become numbing, especially with Tom Holkenborg's tribal-inflected score mixed in with the engine rumbles and constant explosions. The lack of subtlety is clearly by design, but it does become weary over two hours, with the sense that some of the chase sequences, as spectacular as they are, go on simply for too long.

     Also, disappointingly enough, Mr. Hardy, one of the best actors of his generation, is not given enough to do here. His Max is a bit of a sidekick more than a hero, with the film standing squarely on the shoulders of Ms. Theron as the hard-bitten Furiosa (not that I'll complain about that, but after all this is called Mad Max). And for a series that started out as pure, scrappy genre filmmaking to become a franchise on its own, there's a certain bitter-sweet taste of something blown out of all necessary proportions - there's simply too much of Fury Road to be able to digest properly in one sitting.

     Yet, for all of the indigestion, there is indeed something more, something better, at work in Fury Road than in most comparable blockbusters. This isn't just a cynical grab-bag, it's a serious genre movie, even if one that could have used some downsizing to hit the sweet spot.

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Australia, USA, 2015
120 minutes
Cast Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Josh Helman, Nathan Jones, Zoë Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley
Director George Miller; screenwriters Mr. Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris; cinematographer John Seale (colour, widescreen); composer Tom Holkenborg; designer Colin Gibson; costumes Jenny Beavan; editor Margaret Sixel; effects supervisor Andrew Jackson; producers Doug Mitchell, Mr. Miller and P. J. Voeten; production companies Warner Bros. Feature Productions and Kennedy Miller Mitchell Productions in association with Village Roadshow Pictures and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment
Screener May 11th 2015, NOS Colombo Imax, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


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