Saturday, May 16, 2015

Maddening Max

Say whatever else you want to about Mad Max: Fury Road, but this much is certain: No one other than George Miller could have made it. Yes, anyone can make post-apocalyptic loner movies that re-tell Shane or some other Western only with MTV costumes -- the "Action Movie" shelves at Blockbuster in the late 80s testify to that. Yes, anyone can depict death-defying stunts on screen -- these days, with some clicks of a mouse. And more than a few people can make movies with barely a handful of lines of dialogue -- although every time I see Seth Rogen onscreen I realize that number isn't as large as I'd like it to be.

But nobody can mix all of these things with the fuel additive of flat-out crazy in the way that Miller can. His absence from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome -- the death of his filmmaking partner and friend Byron Kennedy while Kennedy was scouting locations left Miller unwilling to agree to handle more than the action set pieces -- was among that movie's many problems. And now, 30 years later, comes a fourth Mad Max movie telling us about Max Rockatansky, (Tom Hardy) a police officer before the world went meshuggah who lost his wife and baby daughter to a biker gang and who now just wanders from place to place, seeking only survival. Fury Road begins with Max's capture by a warlord named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his being pressed into service as a human blood bank due to his universal donor profile. It isn't long before Joe leaves his Citadel oasis to chase a turncoat soldier, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who has spirited his five wives out of their captivity. Max, taken along as a captive to supply blood for one of Joe's ailing suicidal soldiers, manages to escape his own captivity during the chase and winds up joining Furiosa as they flee Joe in search of a safe place in the wasteland.

The cars and culture Miller whipped up for the movie are the dream of every six-year-old boy who figured gluing Hot Wheels together would make a cool car a super car, every person stuck in traffic who wishes they could just stomp on the gas and shove the lesser mortals aside with the huge iron spikes that stick out the front of the car, and so on. The action sequences -- and the movie is basically one long chase, so there are many -- are like demolition derby ballet. Somehow Miller makes the violent collisions of multiple tons of Detroit rolling iron happen with the grace of a grand jeté. Even though most of the stunt work is practical rather than generated, it and the visuals are not particularly realistic. The story, though, works within that frame rather like a fable told around the campfire some years later -- with the escapes narrower, the villains villainouser, all of the guns and cars and equipment straight from the same place we got Babe the Blue Ox and everything exaggerated to make the tale even taller.

The only real problem with Fury Road is that there have been three Mad Max movies before it. I don't mean the problem of continuity -- "But the last of the V-8 Interceptors was already wrecked!" would be one of those complaints. Miller said he explicitly saw Fury Road as a franchise reboot, rather than a continuation of the stories told in the three movies where Mel Gibson plays Max. He said he deliberately made that choice to avoid telling a story he's already told. That's a good idea -- another one of the problems with Thunderdome was that Road Warrior basically completed Max's character arc. Anything that happened after it was much less interesting.

But in Fury Road, Miller does tell the same story he's told before -- that even in a wasteland, an "only the strong survive" mentality creates a society of brutality that eventually collapses under its own weight -- as Auntie Entity learns in Thunderdome and the Humungus figures out when he finds the hard way that brute strength is not the only way to win a fight. Joe's wackadoodle Citadel combines Auntie's personality cult and the Humungus's mohawked looney-toon predatory punk bikers.

Max reconnects with the humanity he thought lost when he realizes that although he couldn't help his wife and daughter yesterday, he can help someone today, just as he does in both Road Warrior and Thunderdome. Heck, Miller uses some of the same people: Hugh Keays-Byrne played the Toecutter, the main antagonist in Mad Max.

The he-man tough-guy warrior schtick of both Joe and the Humungus fall to a society that values both genders. That idea, by the way, seems to be the extent of the back-and-forth about Fury Road being a "feminist movie." Pro- and anti-feminist blatherers made a lot about Miller using playwright Eve Ensler as a coach to help the models playing Joe's wives understand the mindset of someone basically held as a sex slave. That's fine. My main worry was that he'd hired Ensler to write some of the movie; I've read The Vagina Monologues.

Road Warrior ended as the narrative built to a spectacular chase scene that's rarely if ever been equaled onscreen. in Fury Road, Miller has expanded the chase scene to be the whole movie and worked his story into it. No problem with that concept: John Ford and John Wayne managed a pretty decent movie using it. But Miller is telling the same story he has told before and using many of the same pieces. People who didn't see either of the first two Mad Max movies when they came out and kicked off a wave in action cinema that still circulates today, or who know Thunderdome only through the IMDB quote board ("Two men enter! One man leaves!" "Ain't we a pair, raggedy man?") and a Tina Turner video might not realize it, but the amazing spectacle and stunning visual fable they're watching has at its base a story that's just spinning its wheels.

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