Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

...and on the third weekend of Ultron, the crowds turned to what George Miller had made, and they saw that it was good. That it was very good, in fact.  That it was a thing of so rare and well-formed a quality that the masses agreed that this was to be the definition of "bad ass."  For indeed, it was nothing if not that...  

 Maybe I'm exaggerating, maybe not so much. The return of Mad Max has become an event picture in a way no one could have anticipated until fairly late into 2015.  There had been talk, certainly, and rumblings from the cult fandom.  Generally, though, as most were busy examining the spate of Marvel releases under a microscope, Fury Road was thundering around the bend and getting ready to blindside everyone.  At a cultural moment in which the term "action movie" has become synonymous with suited-up superheroes and the destruction of cities, Fury Road boasts both a return to roots and a necessary evolution.  Turns out, it's the movie we need. Yes. A long-after-the-fact sequel to a Mel Gibson series of post-apocalyptic car movies is the movie we collectively need right now.  

Fury Road is a heavy metal magnum opus visceral, loud, and high octane enough to melt your face off.  Like the tricked-out, armored-up "war rigs" it relies so much upon, the film is one designed to barrel forward relentlessly, leaving nothing in its wake but the skeletons of brain-dead drones.  It's as to the point as a rapidly upturned middle finger, its "fuck you" is written in plain English, and it is coming for your preconceptions.  George Miller has trimmed all the fat and cut all the bullshit from Fury Road; the narrative doesn't suffer from the weight of unclear moral dilemmas or overly complicated expository elements.  The story is as simple as this:  there is a group very clearly in the wrong, there is a group very clearly in the right.  They chase each other. People die.  Along the way the audience is treated to the visual equivalent of a perfect punk song - simple yet jarring rhythms, grit, grime, and anarchy, a searing, burnt-up intensity of color and rage.      
Like the punk spirit, too, there's a sort of naive purity in the story's presentation.  Miller gives us a raw action film, and in doing so he seems to forget some of the imposed rules Hollywood too often plays by.  He forgets to equate machine guns with masculinity, he covers the faces of his beautiful actors with dirt and masks, he allows his hero to be usurped, he isn't interested in revealing weakness where he instead can build strength.  

When we're reintroduced to Max (Tom Hardy) he's standing at the edge of the wasteland, crunching on a two-headed lizard next to the souped-up junk heap.  His face is hidden under a rat's nest of hair and we're told, in voiceover, that his world is "fire and blood." Max is haunted by the spastic flashes of his tortured existence, images of the wife and daughter he was not able to save.  This is our initial context for him as - once again - a potential hero. 

Because we're a well-trained audience, we know that grief is often retooled as an origin story. A profound loss can make for a pretty major impetus to push on, protect, and lend a hand against one's better judgment.  So - when a set of circumstances finds Max first holding hostage and then helping 
the rogue lieutenant Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) on her mission to smuggle a group of women out of sexual slavery - we may be inclined to expect the film to build Max into a type of savior.  He has found his calling, a way to redeem himself: he must save the women because the women need saving.  In a lesser, falser film that would undoubtedly be the case, just as we would likely be forced to endure a cloying love story between Furiosa and Max or find him sacrificing himself for her in the final moments.  Thankfully, this is not that film.  This film? This film eats those movies for a light, midday snack. It tears into them idly and shits them out and flushes them away and never considers them events of any consequence whatsoever.  
 Max instead because a largely silent avenue into a far more interesting and worthwhile story. Miller takes our expectations for Max as a hero and rather rapidly transplants them onto Furiosa. He may be mad, but she is furious with reason and purpose - and so are the women she is traveling with. Max's presence becomes one almost for the sake of anchor and point of view. Though he has real things to do and proves himself an asset to Furiosa and her crew, it is noteworthy that he 1. actually does have to prove his worth, and 2. ultimately has about as much to do towards their mutual survival as most of the others - even the pregnant woman.  What he marks instead is a willing passing of the torch, he's the old-school action hero brought in almost to ferry uncertain viewers into adjusting their view of an all-female band of militants.  He is not quite a hero, but she is.  As the audience understands that Max has a limited grasp on reality and a drive more toward survival than righteousness, the story shifts into the hands of Furiosa.  It's a move that calls to mind the rise of Sarah Conner in the Terminator films, an abrupt adjustment that finds us suddenly aware that the protagonist is not the title character after all.

Furiosa's control of the narrative is a big deal. So is her goal. So is the agency given to the "wives" she travels with.  It's not simply that she's a kick-ass female character or that she is, ultimately, the film's true heroic protagonist (though, seriously, she's the coolest and give Theron all the Oscars for everything).  Instead it comes down to the way that film manages to streamline all of this without feeling condescending, calling attention to its transitions, or forcing any type of inequality. By the end of the film everyone who fights does so with an integrity (and intensity) that can be rooted for without guilt or a second thought.  While certainly refreshing, there's also something oddly revolutionary about the way the playing field is arranged in Fury Road.  Miller has put together a movie as legitimately smart as it is rollicking; he points directly towards radical, very real social injustices and does not treat them like playthings or a flippant "reason for revenge."  He builds on them, opens a space in the desert where his characters can illustrate the difference between real strength and toy cars, and retools our genre expectations as we look on in awe.

This is what makes Fury Road an unexpectedly "important" movie in addition to simply being a fun one.  Here it is, a movie chock full of war toys: every incendiary device known to man, dozens of motorcycles, muscle cars, big rigs, squealing electric guitars, and armies of war-painted, amped-up lunatics.  It's got more firepower than The Expendables, and goes harder in just about every respect.  And, oh, hey, would you look at's being run by a one-armed lady with a shaved head and her girl gang.


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