Mad Max: Fury Road

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★★★★

When I reviewed ‘Boyhood’ in July of last year, I wrote that I was certain I had already seen the best movie of 2014. And I was right, though admittedly, ‘Mommy’ was a close second for me. I’m tempted to repeat this. There is a very high probability that George Miller’s ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ will top my list of the best films of 2015.

Miller introduced audiences to the titular character back in 1979, and after delivering two sequels he made two movies about a talking pig named Babe, and two animated features about dancing penguins (‘Happy Feet’). Mr. Miller, who is now 70 years old hasn’t been softened by age. Or by the talking pigs. Or by the dancing penguins. His return to the series as director and co-writer (it has been 30 years since ‘Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome’) is marked by a reinvigorated vision and unabridged vehemence. Gleefully violent and hallucinatory, but in the best possible way, ‘Fury Road’ is a visually astounding experience that outperforms ‘Furious 7’ in terms of vehicular warfare.

The role of Max, whose name remains unrevealed until the picture’s final moments has passed from Mel Gibson to Tom Hardy, one of the best actors of his generation – I’m still astonished that the Academy voters neglected to nominate him for his timeless performance in last year’s ‘Locke’. For a good chunk of the picture, Hardy’s good looks are concealed by a face-mask (just as they were in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’).

Since I, regrettably, am not familiar with the original trilogy, I don’t even know if this is a sequel or a reboot. It doesn’t matter. This is a true original and functions perfectly as a standalone feature. The future is very bleak. King Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) lords over a desert complex known as the Citadel. He only occasional releases water to the scorched multitudes, and rules with the help of an army known as the War Boys, which includes Nux (Nicolas Hoult).

He employs Furiosa (Charlize Theron) as a musclewoman and she is tasked with leading a convoy to another outpost for fuel. But she is a rebel with a cause. Though the rest of the convoy doesn’t know it, she has Joe’s five breeders: The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), Capable (Riley Keough), Toast the Knowing (Zoe Kravitz), The Dag (Abbey Lee) and Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eaton) hidden in the rig and is planning on driving them to the Green Place, which she believes is safe. More importantly, she drives the plot.

Mr. Hardy gets top billing as the titular character but the real star of ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ is Ms. Theron. Her fiery performance coupled with a lean but sharp screenplay makes Furiosa one of the most kick-ass ladies the movies have ever known (to say that she gives Sigourney Weaver in the ‘Alien’ series and Linda Hamilton in the ‘Terminator’ films a run for their money is entirely justifiable). Though Max endures greatly and ascends courageously, if unwillingly initially, to further her insurgency, he is more a sidekick than a hero, or within the context of this film, more of a passenger than a driver.

A curiosity – ‘Pitch Perfect 2’, which wasn’t a very good movie, topped the box office this past weekend thanks to its built-in fan base grossing more in its opening weekend than its predecessor did during its entire theatrical run. A friend informed me that this was because audience members are in the mood for female-centered movies. Though the ads may not sell it, trust me when I say ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ is the ultimate girl-power picture. When a character takes a pair of bolt cutters to her chastity belt, it is a declaration of independence.

Furiosa, a one-armed warrior with a buzz cut, a greased face, and an artificial leg eclipses Max as a sharpshooter, positioning her gun on his broad shoulder for a straight shot.

Lengthy plot description above aside, ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ is 120 minutes of fights and chases through an unrelenting desert (the action is put on pause for about 15 minutes at the halfway point so we can catch our breath and learn a little more about these characters).

Bad guys on motorcycles fly through the air. Characters are tossed back and forth on flexi-rods annexed to armored vehicles. There’s a heavy metal guitarist fastened to the front of a moving vehicle. Wonderfully crazy art. Fast, frenetic, and ferociously efficient. The roar of those souped-up engines will have you revved up from the get-go, and your insurance agent will have every right to be concerned.

Nux, who has branded the tumors on his collarbone as Larry and Barry, is a sympathetic figure and his turnaround to aid the uprising unfolds convincingly. “Oh, what a day! What a lovely day!” he cries as he chases the War Rig through the mother of all sandstorms. There is also a very sweet romance between Nux and one of Joe’s breeders – one that doesn’t rely on the verbosity of its characters.

Thanks to production designer Colin Gibson and director of photography John Seale, we’re scanning the frame admiring all the rich details of this dilapidated world, which are clearly defined by the use of overhead shots. And the details of the muscle cars, tanks, trucks, wagons, trailers, oilrigs, rocket ships, and combinations thereof reformulate the very concept of a hybrid with very little adherence to Newton’s Laws of Motion. Junkie XL’s score is just perfect – grandiloquent when it needs to be, and contemplative when it needs to be.

Rarely is writing credited in action pictures but this is a lean and sharply penned screenplay that is devoid of expository exchanges. Too many pictures of this genre feel the need to resort to dialogue to explain everything that is happening. Miller lets the visceral images tell the story, and trusts that his audience can infer through action. The poignant moments are intensified when the camera zeros in on the faces of its terrific cast. And they say more than words ever could.

There weren’t any 2-D showings of ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ on its opening day, so I opted to see it in 3-D (which I typically avoid), and I’m glad I did – this is one of the rare occasions in which the surcharge is worth it. See it on the biggest screen with the best sound system possible. Miller’s old-school filmmaking sensibilities (Leone-esque wide angle views and practical effects) blend perfectly into this modernistic format. Even with a manipulated frame rate and hyperactive editing, there is a back-to-basics simplicity contained within this that is exhilarating. Most action sequences today are assembled chaotically with heavy slabs of CGI and quick cuts. Observe just how coherently the action unfolds here – you become involved because you can make sense of the geometry.

During the first chase sequence in ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’, I was certain I had witnessed one of the great set pieces in cinematic history. It turned out to be the fourth or fifth best sequence in the picture. This is what going to the movies is all about. Rarely are big-budget pictures, especially sequels, this rousing. Miller is a master filmmaker working at the top of his game. In a perfect world, this would be a serious Oscar contender with nominations across the board: all technical categories as well as Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress (this is arguably Charlize Theron’s best work to date). Miller has just left all of our contemporary action filmmakers so far behind in the dust that it may be years before the standards established by this film can be surpassed. QED.

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