Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Mad for "Max"

I'll be honest.  After all the hype and all the hosannas that have been heaped upon "Mad Max: Fury Road," I was expecting something a little more off-the-wall and well, um, mad.  Don't get me wrong.  "Fury Road" is loads of fun, and a welcome departure from the humdrum, by-the-numbers action spectaculars we've been seeing in theaters lately.  It's not the be-all and end-all of action movies, though.  Frankly, no movie, especially one as pulpy as this, should have to live up to expectations that high and mighty.

Now with that little caveat out of the way, let's get to the juicy stuff.  If you've never heard of the "Mad Max" series before, rest assured that you don't need any knowledge of it whatsoever for "Fury Road."  A lot of the fun is exploring the weird, wacky post-apocalyptic Australian outback, and this is a new corner of it that we haven't seen before: the Citadel, ruled by the terrifying warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his War Boys.  Max, our hero, was once played by Mel Gibson, but is now Tom Hardy, who has no trouble filling his shoes.  Max is a Man-With-No-Name type, a wanderer of few words and great survival skills, hesitant to get involved, but willing to put everything on the line for a cause once he's committed to it. In this outing, he's taken prisoner by the forces of Immortan Joe, and his escape coincides with a daring breakout committed by one of Joe's lieutenants, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who is helping to liberate Joe's five young "wives" from their captivity.

Now, if you are a fan of "Mad Max," or really any older action films from the '70s and '80s, "Fury Road" is sure to be a treat.  There's plenty of CGI prettying up the desert landscapes, but the bulk of the action is good, old fashioned, practical machine v. machine and man v. machine mayhem.  And what machines!  Max and Furiosa spend most of the film driving a stolen "War Rig," a gasoline tanker modified with weaponry and various steampunk gadgets.  In hot pursuit are scavengers driving VW bugs covered in metal spikes, nomad motorcyclists wielding grenades, and Immortan Joe's vast war party of pursuit vehicles.  It even includes a moving stage covered in amps, reserved for his musical accompaniment.  Even wilder than the cars are the drivers.  Immortan Joe heads a cult of personality that has become a religion, where the War Boys worship him and perform insane feats of physical daring in the hopes of winning a place in the shiny chrome afterlife of Valhalla.

The best part is that the action is entirely coherent and easy to follow.  And it retains all the same grime and dust and sweat and anarchic glee of "The Road Warrior," made over thirty years ago.  It's almost miraculous that the seventy year-old George Miller has lost none of his enthusiasm or his radical vision for this universe.  The only real difference seems to be the expanded budget, which has allowed for more stylized visuals, crisper picture, and a more saturated color palette.   The characters, as ever, are simply constructed with little time to impart much psychological depth.  Yet still there's so much suggested about them so quickly and efficiently - Max's visions of a little girl who seems to embody his survival instinct, Furiosa's recitation of her origins, the painted slogans left behind by the wives, and the fervent devotion of the War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult), all help to provide little details that enrich the fascinating Mad Max universe.

And all this makes "Fury Road" a very good movie, but not quite a great one.  There's not enough meat here for that, not enough substance to really chew on.  If Miller had pushed a little deeper with Max or Furiosa and let there be some real emotional stakes beyond simple survival, maybe the film would have left a more lasting impression.  Immortan Joe reminds me so much of Thulsa Doom - another memorable cult leader who builds his own little society in the desert - but isn't nearly as compelling.  Of course, there's nothing wrong with being a good popcorn movie, and more plot probably would have just gotten in the way of the adrenaline-pumping fights and stunts. 
I guess all I can hope for is more "Mad Max" movies in the future, so we can explore more of George Miller's strange, mad desert world.

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