Friday, May 15, 2015

In Theaters: MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)

(US/Australia - 2015)

Directed by George Miller. Written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris. Cast: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Nathan Jones, Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton, Josh Helman, John Howard, Richard Carter, Megan Gale, Melissa Jaffer, Angus Sampson, Richard Norton,  iOTA. (R, 120 mins)

Australian auteur George Miller has worked only sporadically in the 30 years since 1985's MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME, but when he does reappear, he makes it count. He produced the beloved BABE in 1995 and directed 1998's BABE: PIG IN THE CITY, a dark and bizarre curveball of a sequel that baffled everyone but has become a major cult film. In the years since, he's become synonymous with the hugely popular HAPPY FEET films, but MAD MAX: FURY ROAD marks his triumphant return to the franchise he started in 1979 with MAD MAX, one that made Mel Gibson a star and spawned an entire subgenre of post-nuke action films after its sequel THE ROAD WARRIOR opened in the US in the legendary summer of 1982. THE ROAD WARRIOR (released a year earlier in its native Australia as MAD MAX 2) remains one of the most influential action films ever made and one that BEYOND THUNDERDOME probably couldn't have topped even if Miller's mind wasn't elsewhere following the 1983 death of his friend and producing partner Byron Kennedy in a helicopter crash while location-scouting (his name remains on their production company Kennedy Miller Mitchell to this day), prompting a grieving Miller to delegate enough of the film to Australian TV vet George Ogilvie that both Georges shared directing credit. For 30 years, the disappointing-but-OK-on-its-own-terms BEYOND THUNDERDOME, despite such memorable characters as Master Blaster and Tina Turner's Aunty Entity, has remained a lesser conclusion to an otherwise exemplary trilogy.

Miller's had the basic concept of FURY ROAD churning in his head since the late '90s, and tried to get it off the ground in the early 2000s with Gibson returning to his iconic role. But it never materialized into anything more than the idea stage until Miller finally got all the pieces in place with Tom Hardy taking over the Mad Max role from Gibson, who by then was either too old or too much of a tabloid distraction or both. FURY ROAD isn't a reboot, it's not a prequel, and it's not an origin story.  It's not even necessarily a sequel as much as it's another Mad Max adventure. It functions as a stand-alone, self-contained piece, much like the old James Bond movies used to do. There's references to things from the earlier films, mainly winking nods to longtime fans (the music box given to The Feral Kid in THE ROAD WARRIOR; a near-subliminal shot of bulging eyeballs from MAD MAX), and 67-year-old Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played MAD MAX's chief villain Toecutter 36 years ago, is onboard as a different villain this time. Much the way THE ROAD WARRIOR blazed trails in the action genre, so does FURY ROAD, with the now-70-year-old Miller unveiling what's likely the best action movie in a generation, effectively showing an entire demographic weaned on CGI and video games and hyper, incoherent, shaky-cam editing how it should be done. Much was made of FURY ROAD's reliance on practical effects and old-school stunt work, though it obviously utilizes CGI to a certain degree. Yes, a couple of shots look a little on the cartoony side, but the other 98% of the time, Miller uses CGI how it should be used:  as an enhancement as opposed to a crutch. Even by the standards he set 34 years ago with THE ROAD WARRIOR, the veteran filmmaker outdoes himself with MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, proof positive that underneath his soft-spoken, milquetoast exterior, George Miller is a fucking madman perpetually straddling the fine line between genius and insanity.

Hardy's Max Rockatansky is introduced being abducted by the War Boys, the albino-like minions of wasteland despot Immortan Joe (Keays-Byrne), who sports a plastic casing over his boil-ravaged body and a breathing apparatus permanently attached to his face. Max is kept prisoner as the human blood bag of Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a sickly War Boy who needs frequent transfusions. Immortan Joe is viewed as a deity by his followers, who are kept in line by a very conservatively doled-out water supply and promises of being carried into Valhalla. Not everyone is happy under his rule, particularly one-armed War Rig driver Imperator Furiosa (a terrific Charlize Theron), a buzz-cut, battle-scarred warrior in charge of getting a supply of "guzzoline" from nearby Gastown. Instead, she's stowed away Immortan Joe's five young wives--the very pregnant Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), Toast the Knowing (Zoe Kravitz), Capable (Riley Keough), The Dag (Abbey Lee), and Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eaton), all enslaved and kept under lock and key for breeding and sexual purposes--with the intent of taking them to their freedom to a mythical promised land known as "The Green Place." Once Immortan Joe realizes they've gone off the road to Gastown, he and his hulking son Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones) unleash an army of warriors and War Boys for what's essentially a feature-length, extended chase sequence with a couple of breaks for character development. Max begins the pursuit chained to the front of Nux's car, intravenously connected to him until an epic dust storm separates them from the rest of Immortan Joe's forces and Max forms an unholy alliance with Furiosa. Dialogue is relatively minimal, often with nods or facial expressions often speaking volumes (note Max's only smile--a half-hearted one at that--and the exhausted thumbs-up he gives The Splendid Angharad when she steps up and disposes of a War Boy), and there's little in the way of subtlety: when Max asks Furiosa what she's after, the answer is "Redemption." Well, duh.

But that's not the main concern with FURY ROAD. Miller has fashioned this as a jawdropping epic, with himself the conductor of a batshit symphony of destruction. With a $150 million budget, Warner Bros. has given Miller an astounding amount of leeway in the creation of his latest masterpiece. Filmed in the summer and fall of 2012 in the Namib Desert and Namibia, with other shooting in South Africa and Australia, with some additional reshoots and second-unit work in November 2013, Miller took a Kubrickian amount of time getting FURY ROAD just right, from the action choreography to the vehicles and the costumes to the locations and the production design. I've never seen a film with so many credited assistant directors, assistant editors, and stunt personnel. From the car wrecks to the stunt professionals being hurled through the air or pole-vaulting onto big rigs barreling through the Namib Desert at high speeds, or the flashy Doof Warrior (iOTA), who heads into battle perched atop a War Rig with a flamethrowing double-necked guitar backed by a wall of amps and eight drummers on the trailer behind, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD presents bombastic, skullcrushing action as a work of lunatic art. Describing it not only risks spoiling it, but it in no way does it justice. You've seen films like this before--you just haven't seen them done this way before. Miller, his co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris, Oscar-winning cinematographer John Seale, and all the technical personnel have achieved a new benchmark in action cinema, and a blistering example of just how placated we've become with what passes for such in most of today's big movies. Miller has bestowed MAD MAX: FURY ROAD on the moviegoing public to remind us of the possibilities and to save the Big Summer Movie from itself. It can be done, because Miller and his cast and crew did it. People still remember the formative experience of seeing THE ROAD WARRIOR for the first time. That's how you'll feel leaving the theater after MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. Can you remember the last time you felt that way? The term "game-changer" gets tossed around a little too liberally these days, but believe the hype. This is the new standard-bearer.

Note: standard, 2D version reviewed

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