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Mad Max: Fury Road

"I used to be a cop," says the man who only very late in the proceedings of Mad Max:  Fury Road, owns that his name is actually Max.  "Fury Road" is a kind of continuation of the Max Max franchise, some thirty years after the third film in the series, "Beyond Thunderdome" came and unceremoniously went.  However, from the first memorable Mad Max film to this most recent, there is a kind of honing of character, from a specific man with a specific job to a near-mythical character roaming, Western fashion, a dusty, post-apocalyptic world.  Not quite a man with no name, but very close.

As the Mad Max films have gotten less specific in terms of character and place (most of the desert action here was filmed in Namibia), "Fury Road's" more international cast is fitting.  So too the presence of Englishman Tom Hardy in the role of the eponymous wanderer.  Mr. Hardy's voice has drifted sonorously if a little vaguely all over the globe in roles of  the past decade.  Change though it might from one key scene to another in "Fury Road", Hardy's drifting inflection inadvertently suits a character who has become something of a shifting presence, even while the actor's sturdy physique gives this Max a formidable vehicle with which to pursue and mainly be pursued.  Or as he says in the film's busy pre-title sequence, "I am the one who runs from both the living and the dead."

The often frenetic, almost cartoonish prologue to "Fury Road" provides about all the film is going to give you in terms of context and exposition.  The voiceover comes mainly from Hardy, enunciating as though his already ample lips were a bit swollen from all that running around in the desert - too little water, too much heat  "My world is fire and blood," he intones, the consonants no more crisp that the rounded vowels.  He is, he tells us, "A man reduced to a single instinct:  survive"

To further set the post-apocalyptic scene, we're told that there were "thermo-nuclear skirmishes."  That dire news to the accompaniment of a blanched image from stock nuclear blast footage, trees almost in x-ray recoiling from the shock waves.  "As the world fell, each of us in our own way was broken," a lugubrious Max informs.  A female voice adds, "We are half-life." 

In this time of "petroleum wars," water and untainted blood are as dear as oil.  In his initial hermit's headdress of long hair and face- obscuring cascade of dusty beard, Max is pursued by the white-powdered, skinheaded War Boys. He's caught, escapes,  is pursued and caught again.  In the midst of  this excitement, Max is given a back full of brands and tattoos, the most significant of which indicate that he's a universal blood donor.  Most all of the movements in this sequence occur in a hyper,  herky-jerky rhythm.  The cartoonish tone is set at the outset when a two-headed lizard is seen in the foreground on the red dust, before skittering over to our isolated hero, his back to the camera.  Without looking, Max stomps a heel on the lizard and puts the creature into his mouth, the wiggling tail protruding from his lips.  Perhaps that's why he's having such a hard time getting his words out...

If you happen to be new to the Mad Max franchise, or even if you are quite familiar with the first two or three installments, the particulars of "Fury Road" might  remain a mystery to you through much of the film's two hours.  If that's the case, you likely won't have time or inclination to dwell on your ignorance.  What's eminently clear is that Mad Max:  Fury Road is an absorbing, imaginative, seamlessly constructed action film by George Miller, a man with enough experience to know that the most elevating and enduring thrills are those that are most real, those most clearly defined amid their clouds of chaos.

Some have described "Fury Road" as a film with essentially one scene.  Much as Miller is able to maintain the excitement of chase and battle scenes for impressive spans of time, there are several key, distinct scenes or sequences in "Fury Road," even while transported on a boomerang of plot.  The first post-title scene, somewhat bewildering in its detail and teeming action, occurs at the Citadel, home base for the War Boys, where presides Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, veteran of the first Mad Max film).

Amid the frenzy of activity, we see "Cult Leader Joe" readied to address the wretched souls who await words and water on the dry ground beneath his verdant aerie.  Before a kind of molded, plastic armor is placed over his torso, the imperious Immortan has powder thrown over his back, a relief map of wrinkles, scars and boils.  Here, a hint that the powder in which Joe and his War Boys appear might be part uniform, part balm.  What the relatively lucky inhabitants of the desert penthouse and those scraping in the dirt below have in common is deformity, confirmation of Max's earlier statement that all were broken in their own way by the war and it's attendant radiation.  

Ladies and gentleman, I give you the next Republican nominee for president.
Hugh Keays-Byrne as Immortan Joe in "Fury Road.
The ceremony for which Immortan Joe dons his fearsome habiliments (including a mask with massive if artificial chompers) is the sendoff of a tanker to be driven by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) to procure some of that precious fuel at Gas Town, as well as a stop at the Bullet Farm... where, presumably, one shops for bullets.  This occurs with considerable fanfare, complete with music, salutes (a kind of triangle of obedient arms and hands above heads) and a speech by Joe. There is even a brief opening of fresh water channels to cascade upon the rocks and wretched souls below.  The largess is painfully short-lived for those hoping to fill their makeshift vessels with water. After the flow is quickly stopped, the Immortan addresses the desperate throng in his growling, amplified baritone:   "Do not become addicted to the water.  It will take hold of you and you will resent its absence."  This literal and quite incisive demonstration of trickle down economics revealing that our man Joe has the makings of an excellent Republican candidate for the American presidency.

The key action in "Fury Road" occurs when Furiosa goes off road not long after leaving the Citadel, heading east when she's supposed to be on the way to Gas City.  She has secretly absconded with Joe's coterie of five wives, whom he uses for breeding, if not their physical beauty in a world in which that is true of virtually no one else, men or women (including to an extent, Furiosa, living with most of her right arm missing; although this is still Charlize Theron and good bone structure will out, as will those blue eyes that gleam from behind any dust or the raccoon smear of black greasepaint with which she might swath her forehead and eyes, all of which allowing her to quite convincingly rock the buzz cut that she sports throughout).

The detour of the convoy is obvious soon enough to Joe, as is the disappearance of his wives.  And the chase is on.  Joe and his War Boys head out, including the weakened Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who must take Max along as a "blood bag."  Why one's blood bag would be mounted to the front of one's badass pursuit vehicle like a glorified hood ornament is something of a mystery, but a minor lapse in logic that George Miller earns with the overall coherence of his story.

Though generally spare of dialog, there's plenty going on in Miller's story beyond its roiling action.  There's an undercutting of this particular male cult of personality, as well as a more general critique of governance conducted by way of machismo.  Not to mention the desperate young men who do the bidding of these male figureheads.  Fearsome as they might be with their shaved heads, the powdered musculature of their bare torsos and intense manner that suggests the ingestion of a few too many post-Apocalyptic Red Bulls, these are obviously boys questing after identity, belonging, affirmation.

As with much else in "Fury Road" Miller captures this madness almost without dialog.  Instead, a simple, memorable visible cue. Before launching themselves into a particularly dangerous moment of battle, the War Boys spray their mouths with chrome paint.  And then they really get crazy.  Here, perhaps, both a token of the cult of the mechanical, of those hybrid, souped-up vehicles so prized by these adrenalized man-children, as well as a verbal element of Immortan Joe's cobbled together philosophy.  When Nux goes to the Immortan with a plan to stop the renegades, he receives the honor of having the spay applied for him by Joe, who promises that he will deliver him personally to Valhalla, "shining and chrome" should he succeed.
Alas, the hapless Nux is quickly tripped up.  Immortan Joe shakes his head contemptuously.  If  you want something done right....The fact that Nux thereafter joins the very band of  escapees he had been trying to capture is actually quite consistent with his lack of identity.  Given a bit of affection, he's a homeless mutt ready enough to adopt a new home to which he'll transfer his all his single-minded loyalty.  The story grants him some dignity in this most meaningful switch of alliance to the escaping women and Max and ultimately gives him something truly worthwhile for which he might fight or even die.

That this stray is quickly adopted by one of the Vuvalini (the Immortan's wives), Capable (Riley Keough), and that the strong, wary personalities of Max and Furiosa fairly quickly fall in together seems, at first blush, a shortcoming of Miller's story.  However, the unlikely alliances are actually in line with the characters we come to know.  Consistent as well with Miller's elliptical storytelling that trusts us to make implied and harmonious connections.

The strange team of Furiosa, the Vulvalini, the lone wolf Max and lost War Boy Nux first come together in one of "Fury Road's" signature scenes, all the more memorable as it is one of the film's few actions sequences not propelled by escape and pursuit, by its teeming, motorized mayhem.  The initial attempts to intercept the tanker driven by Furiosa having failed, we see what looks like a small mountain of still sand.  Here, Miller playing with perspective, as it's actually a buried Max who stirs and unearths himself, jerked into consciousness as usual as much by his ghosts as any imperative toward breathing and wakefulness.  Good news:  he's still alive.  Bad news:  he's still chained (and masked) to his War Boy.

Max's attempts to undo the chain, which devolve to the option of gnawing off Nux's hand, are interrupted by the vision of the Vuvalini, scantily arrayed in their gauzy togs, rinsing their startling beautiful selves clean at the side of the parked tanker.  Something out of a post-apocalyptic music video at first glance, but in addition to the bare legs and midriffs, the barely concealed breasts, there is also the prominent belly of one of the pregnant "wives," cutting short any leering tendency of the scene and reminding us just what the lives of these young women have been about.  Max gets the jump on Furiosa, but it's not long before they're locked in combat, the much larger man by no means getting the best of it.  The fight gets much more interesting when Nux - still chained to Max - awakens and the fight becomes a three-way, with the Vulvalini also occasionally leaping into the fray, yanking on the chain.

Mad Max:  Fury Road is not simply an action film in which a female actor is granted a supporting role.  It is Furiosa who determines the action from the start and lands the film's decisive blows.  By the time that the tanker and its motley contingent U-turn back to Citadel, it's a liberation force, a small army composed mainly of women, young and old.  Max abets their efforts at most.  Unlike the man with no name model of Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars, Max is saved every bit as much as he does any saving.  Even the weapons proficiency which mark the Clint Eastwood and Toshiro Mifune characters in their respective films is undercut in a scene in which Furiosa, not Max takes the ultimate shot, blinding the head Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter).  Max, chagrined, voluntarily yields a rifle after twice missing the mark.

The elder females join Furiosa and the Vuvalini when she manages to drive them east to what she expects to be the "Green Place" of her youth, from where she had been taken (a faint echo, perhaps, of Australia's "Stolen Generations" of Aboriginal youth).  She and her passengers find a small band of women, mainly of the silver and white-haired variety.  Even more than their younger counterparts, these women defy expectations from the start, roaring in on motorcycles as any number of attacking men had earlier set upon the escaping tanker.  These "Many Mothers" are Furiosa's kin.  She and her her passengers are all welcomed (after a brief bit of wariness) by the formidable elders.  The celebratory mood is cut short when Furiosa is told that these are actually the last of her people.  Worse, the Green Place of her youth is no more.  She's told to her shock that the miasmic, nightmare landscape (complete with damned, shaggy creatures moving above the poisoned ground on long poles)  through which they had just driven is the fertile landscape of her childhood wasted like all else by "skirmishes" and their fallout.

The desire to return, get home, is one of the many plangent sub-themes of Mad Max:  Fury Road, that not only give it its emotional resonance, but connect it to something more timeless in cinema and the long strand of human storytelling.

Like so much about "Fury Road," Miller more than satisfies expectations with while at the same time defying them, with the Many Mothers as with Max.  After realizing that the Green Place is no more, Furiosa, the Many Mothers and the Vuvalini resume their journey east on motorcycle, an uncertain journey across a vast salt flat.  Max is offered one of the fully-stocked bikes, but demurs.  Another key action in "Fury Road" occurs when Max reconsiders, catches up with the women and Nux and convinces them to turn back to the only green place left, The Citadel.  

Max certainly plays his significant role in this unlikely rebel force, but he's merely one of many.  This a significant departure from the tales in which the man with no name saves the town, the trampled upon, etc.  Here the male loner is indeed saved as much as he saves.  Max's decision to at least take a break from his desperado ways signals, along with the renunciation of Joe and his eager to please War Boys, a more collaborative approach, particularly with regard to gender.  Furiosa is fomidable.  The Vuvalini are rather more than pretty, passive witnesses to the action.  And the Many Mothers are not senior citizens with whom anyone should trifle (like most of the cast, these women apparently did the majority of their own stunts).  We might not want to get carried away and call "Fury Road" a work of feminism.  But there is a kind of encompassing humanism at work.

But what of Max Rockatansky?  This Max is mad enough to earn his longstanding nickname, even if it's not spoken in "Fury Road."  He is haunted and often compromised by visions.  While trying to escape the War Boys in that pullulating pre-title sequence, Max faces a barrage of ghosts, faces from his past which shift one to the next in a nightmare flow.  For the most part, it is the image of his dead daughter which most often troubles and even aides the solitary man.  To adapt one of his own rounded statements, Max is both pursued by ghosts and something of a ghostly presence himself. Hardy, with his grunts and laconic utterances ever seeking their tune, succeeds in the surprising way that the greater film succeeds.  Rearing, as out of that seeming mountain of sand to impose the expected physical presence, rising to the anticipated scraps and tilts, he ultimately withdraws, a tough skin peeled back to reveal the surprising, insistent heart of "Fury Road."

All of this heart, this humanity, George Miller suggests with impressive economy.  Only once does his touch as a writer betray the otherwise sure, elliptical subtext of the story.  Tellingly, this occurs in one of the scenes in "Fury Road" most heavily freighted with dialog.  Furiosa speaks of her past to Max and the redemption she hopes to gain by escaping with Immortan Joe's wives.  Nothing about this scene is right.  Theron and Hardy, so solid throughout, fade a bit with the sagging material, the latter's accent drifting toward the odd, sort of Brooklyn accent of last year's The Drop.  Even Junkie XL's otherwise effective score goes astray.  At times galloping and percussive, at others like an orchestra on "guzzaline" with cellos from hell, his score is seemingly invaded by a plaintive string quartet in this superfluous scene.

Of course, there is a bit of action in Mad Max:  Fury Road.  The film's quieter, defining moments punctuate extended, breathless sequences of pursuit, escape and battle which predominate in the film's quick in passing two hours.  And while there is artifice and special effects at work - a pursuit sequence through a kind of electrical dust storm; night scenes shot in daylight and manipulated dark; the daylight sky itself sometimes rendered unreal; - "Fury Road's" intense action is able to maintain a delicate, high plateau of excitement largely because what we're seeing is actually happening.

Miller  has said that 90% of his film's effects are"practical."  This involves not only actors willing to do their own stunts, but performers with Cirque du Soleil and Olympic training.  Thus, the swinging "polecats" perched atop flexible poles and flung into pursued vehicles to pluck one of the Vuvalini or generally wreak havoc.  All of these soaring bodies and flying motorcycles creating the impression of an X Games at the end of the world. 

There is also the rich imagination of George Miller.  During the many years that "Fury Road" was on again, then off again, Miller obviously had plenty of time to develop and clarify his ideas.  Apparently the film's first two years (or so) of shooting occurred off story boards, no script.  Actors, without a clear sense of story arc learned to simply trust their director's vision.  Obviously, the trust was well founded. 

Miller's direction is assured, mainly distinguishing itself in the admirable coherence of the pursuit and battle scenes.  The general, sustained flow of these sequences, as the tanker is first chased on its flight from the Citadel and then back, through several periods of battle, are completely absorbing.  Within these longer movements Miller offers more striking moments, as when one of the smaller vehicles  accompanying the rogue tanker falls into a massive trap set by bandits.  In slow motion, the vehicle flips, sending one of its passengers flying right off the screen, an effect impressive enough even in 2D.  Only rarely does Miller let the action get gratuitous, as when another crash results in a disintegrating vehicle, whose skull-centered steering wheel is flung at the screen like a logo. 

 Not to be forgotten about what is so real and effective about "Fury Road," its practical effects, are the vehicles themselves:  cars, trucks, souped-up, adapted, fused together, outfitted (as the porcupine-like cruisers of the bandits who first assail the tanker) for most every eventuality (we see Max streak through a kind of chop shop while he's pursued by the War Boys during the pre-title scenes).  To be fed a steady diet of special effects is to forget how simply effective a camera can be when latched to the front of car or truck, practically scraping the ground as we are given the real. powerful perception of speed, depth and pursuit.  There is also actual sound, the roar, the whine of an accelerating machine.  Beyond Peter Yate's sharp direction and Steve McQueen's willingness to a lot of his own driving, the legendary car chase in Bullitt remains so gripping and memorable for the throaty growl of that Mustang. 

In its extended action as much as its moments of pause, Mad Max:  Fury Road succeeds by keeping matters as real as is imaginable with something of this scope.  Considered among its competitors at the multiplex this spring and summer, that's a considerable accomplishment.  Whether our increasingly attention-challenged world needs more films whose budgets exceed the GDP of poor nations (never mind that "Fury Road" has more than doubled its $150 budget at the box office) is another question for another time.

Mad Max:  Fury Road is a helluva action film that merits more than one viewing - its detail better to be appreciate, it's action just as breathless a second time around.  Like his drifting and shifting hero, George Miller is somehow just the person for the job, benefiting perhaps from a career that has ranged from the first Mad Max films to the likes of Babe, Happy Feet and back again.  So we have stellar action, within which is revealed a surprising amount of intelligence and heart.  Like Max throughout, Miller serves the greater story without imposing himself too much on the proceedings. For once, it's not all about the boys.   



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