Review: Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road features a handful of either cuts or fades to black wherein director George Miller generously allows his audiences a moment to gather their breath once more.  One suspects the film was tested without these little oases of calm, these fleeting moments of dark respite, only for the studio boys to find viewers tumbling feebly out of the preview screenings in a state of addled exhaustion, hunched over, fingers curling, knees giving out. These brief intervals turn out to be integral to how Fury Road works as an experience. Without them this film might simply be too much.

Here’s the simplest piece of information that you need at this point: You have to go and see this movie in the cinema. Don’t wait for it to become available to download or stream. Don’t for one second entertain the idea that some knock-off, pixellated, leaked-Game-Of-Thrones-quality pirate copy will suffice, hunched over your laptop in some bedroom somewhere, small finger-smudged screen and tinny speakers trashing the woefully compressed sound.

No.

In the same spirit as Gravity before it (but actually loads better in every way), Miller’s film demands to be experienced at the cinema. In the best quality you can find. On the largest canvas you can muster. In that beautiful dark with the sound booming around you. Miller has excavated from the rock of his own mind the very best tent pole action blockbuster of our generation. Hyperbole? Don’t care. This time it’s warranted. This time it’s legit. Every other movie of its ilk on the 2015 release slate can just go home already, basically. Even you, Star Wars (yes, I said it). There simply, genuinely, hasn’t been a film like this in recent memory. Even the previous Mad Max films – now over 30 years old – weren’t like this. Miller just invented the future. And it’s ugly. And brilliant. And thankfully pocked with moments where you can… just… breathe.

But not for long.

It’s the future, the obliterated sun-scorched wastes, and Tom Hardy is Max. And boy is he mad. Mad in a way Mel Gibson never quite managed. In his opening scene he bites into the raw flesh of a two-headed amphibian (a nod to eXistenz? Unlikely but I’d like to think so). Quickly – surprisingly quickly – he is captured and incarcerated at the Citadel by the squadron of anaemic goons that have fallen under the thrall of local head-honcho Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne in masked pantomime villain glory), enslaved as a human ‘blood-bag’ to scrawny, agile Nux (Nicholas Hoult). However, one of the great and pleasant surprises of Fury Road is how the central dramatic tension is not even held between Max and Joe, but between Joe and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, channeling Alien3-era Sigourney Weaver to blistering effect).

Furiosa is driving a convoy to nearby Gas Town for Joe, but has no intention of reaching her destination. Instead she is breaking free from Joe, taking his most precious breeding stock with her. In a dystopia of limited resources, Joe’s healthy slave women are of high value and a relentless chase ensues, one contorted into something larger by Joe’s twisted love for his former captives and his insatiable need to win no matter the cost. Max finds himself hurled into the middle of this against his volition, casting him as the reluctant hero… At best. In fact, for a while here Max is perfectly happy just keeping himself alive, and is nothing if not resourceful. Hardy is great in the monosyllabic role, but it’s a surefooted helmsman who keeps his lead character essentially bound and gagged for the first third of his picture without it suffering in the least. Miller has that confidence in his vision. And he’s right to be so sure of himself. Fury Road belts out of the gate and barely takes a breather in its first hour.

Mad Max Fury Road

Your typical modern action films just aren’t built like this. They don’t have the ambition and they certainly don’t have the vision. One of the many glorious things about Fury Road is the astonishingly accomplished world-building. Every single frame convinces. And even when the CG elements suggest an exaggerated artifice… this in itself feels intentional. Part of the aesthetic. For the most part though, it’s worth underscoring, the visuals are tremendous, and the fidelity to physical stunt work pays dividends. Crashing vehicles feel heavy. Explosions feel hot. I watched Fury Road in 2D, but it felt like I was watching it in 3D. I’m talking in terms of immersion here, not gimmickry. However, Fury Road does contain one moment of egregious pandering to modern cinema’s most distancing fad. A third act crescendo of stuff-whizzing-at-the-camera. I give Miller a pass for that, as there’s so much to praise elsewhere.

The details in this movie are mind-boggling, as meticulous and intricate as the choreography of the perfectly times chaos and destruction that propels the film along and keeps it mutating with energy that ricochets down through cinema history, from the itchy vigor of early Sam Raimi right back to the glorious visual playfulness of Buster Keaton. Miller’s film is pure cinema in a literal sense. There is no other medium in which Fury Road could exist.

And it’s not all surface thrills. If it had been Fury Road would’ve done just fine and been a landmark of a kind, but there’s a little more going on under the chassis here. Not a lot, granted, but enough to push the film into that higher tier of blockbuster movies that manage to be exceptional beyond their achievements as pure spectacle. Theron steals the film wholesale as Furiosa, a resourceful, badass action heroine (and a disabled one at that – progressive points there too, Miller), but she’s not alone in making Fury Road one of the great action films for women. Her precious cargo, while clothed exclusively in leftover scarves from a Dove commercial, prove to be more than just pretty-faced damsels in distress. They’re useful characters in their own right with skills and conflicts. It feels as though we should be passed the point where this should be exemplary, but Miller credits every character as a separate entity with equal ability to take the reigns of the movie. Allegiances aren’t concrete. And it is Furiosa, her passion and her righteous cause that encourage Max to be more than he previously had been in the picture. She is the driving force behind the narrative. She puts the fury in the title.

So if the machinations of the plot are ultimately only as complex as an elastic band being flicked, the effect on the viewer is a constant sense of being catapulted forward. Amid the carnage and the endlessly permeating character dynamics (Nux: boo! / Nux: hurrah!), Fury Road is just so much fun. This is a movie that will inspire the next generation of blockbuster filmmakers. Fury Road will be a landmark film. Christopher Nolan’s rigid, joyless architectural template can make way. There’s a new boss in town. And he’s the old boss.

Miller’s characters frequently move faster than they seemingly ought to. The film is running quicker than the boring real world would ever allow. It’s as if Miller is impatient with corporeal time and wants to be able to launch himself and his world out of it, flinging them – and us – into the future with an almighty roar. You’ll get the odd moment to breathe when the screen goes black, but there’s always more in store. And plenty to go back for.

Make sure you’re along for the ride. Go. Go now.

Score:  5

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