Saturday, July 30, 2016

Mad Max: Fury Road

Wow. Who knew that thirty years after the last entry in the series, a new Mad Max movie would be so good? Simultaneously a reboot and a sort-of sequel, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) finds director George Miller returning to the post-apocalyptic wasteland, this time with Tom Hardy replacing Mel Gibson in the title role, and he offers plenty of fresh material alongside superlative vehicular carnage. As far as grand-scale action blockbusters go, Fury Road is the best in years.

While wandering the desert, still haunted by the deaths of those he failed to protect, Max is captured and taken to the Citadel, an oasis ruled over by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) who has set himself up as a god. When one of Joe's top lieutenant's, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), drives off in a heavily armored war rig to escape with his five wives, Joe sets off in pursuit with his army. Max is dragged in the chase, his healthy blood used by one of Joe's sick "War Boys," Nux (Nicholas Hoult), and before long, he joins Furiosa and the wives in their flight to freedom.

There's so much right about Fury Road, it's hard to know where to start. I know. Among Joe's armada is a heavy metal concert on wheels with massive drums and a guitarist who plays a flame-throwing guitar. Say what you will about Joe - and he is a total monster - but that is one of the coolest things I've ever seen.

Seriously, Miller continues the series tradition of combining first-rate, epic action scenes with depictions of the unique ways people have adapted to the fall of civilization. Miller, ever the visual storyteller, doesn't waste time with exposition or people standing around talking about how they live. He just shows them in action.

The society Immortan Joe has set up is fascinating and frightening. It's basically a massive cult with himself on top. The War Boys, sickly and dying from radiation poisoning, live only to fight and die for his approval; as adults, they charge heedlessly into battle, and as children, they work the industrial gears that operate the massive elevator of the Citadel, essentially human hamsters. He keeps his wives, the younger and healthier ones anyway, locked away in a vault filled with the finest luxuries while the older women are kept around as human cows, their breast milk harvested. Beneath Joe's tower lives the unwashed rabble who are totally dependent on him for water. Occasionally, he gives them some while lecturing them not to grow addicted to it lest they resent its absence.

As in previous entries, the costumes and other visual details are outstanding. Even the little throwaway elements suggest so much richness and hidden depth. Furiosa and Max lead the group through a deadly bog that is seemingly uninhabitable, but there are crows and mask-wearing people on impossibly long stilts who seem to live there. Also of note, the personalized steering wheels cherished by the War Boys; to have one, and by extension being chosen to drive a war machine, is treated as something of a right of passage or a mark of manhood.

The action scenes are ferocious, furious you might say. There are the expected crashes and explosions, and more so than the previous trilogy, Miller works in more gunfighting (the villainous Bullet Farmer is a memorable henchman of Joe), but he knows how to give them stakes and flavor.  At one point, the War Boys pole-vault from moving vehicles onto the rig to snatch the wives and even Max goes for a ride on one. Overall, the action scenes are bigger and more complex; Miller has seemingly spent the previous three decades coming up with wild and unique sequences and matching them with the best and latest in movie technology. The computer-generated effects are there, but they are incorporated well for the most part. The world still feels real and physical.

The movie is wall-to-wall with action and effects, although there are occasional quiet moments of talk and reflection. Max, a little more crazy than Gibson's (he hears voices and sees visions of the dead), becomes a little more trusting of people out of necessity. His big emotional moment occurs when he tearfully reveals his name to Furiosa, who emerges as the more complex character. She was taken from her home as a child and climb the social rungs from captive and who knows what else (the brand on her neck indicates her blood was valuable, too) to a military leader and finally a rebel. Plus, she's just as tough as Max and as determined to survive.

They're essentially dual protagonists, and they make a good pair. Even the loner Max seems to realize this. At one point, shooting a sniper rifle with a dwindling number of bullets, he hands the rifle off to her because her aim is better. He even lets her use his shoulder to steady the rifle. Also noteworthy is Nux who begins as a fanatical War Boy who gradually ends up assisting Max and Furiosa. For a movie with so much action, it has a richness of characterization one wouldn't expect.

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