MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (directed by George Miller, 2015)
Reviewing "Mad Max: Fury Road" presents me with two problems. 1) How can I possibly describe a movie this gloriously gonzo, this triumphant, while using words that sound coherent? 2) How can I resist the urge to write those words in all caps?
Here is a movie that not only inspires hyperbole, it demands hyperbole, that breathless stream of adjectives and adverbs in the lobby sounding like rubbish to everyone but the initiated. Its very essence is a cinematic hyperbole. Got a point to make and a movie to make it with? Why go small when you can go big? Why go timid when you can go ecstatic? Why go subtle when you can go insane?
Why go great when you can go greatest?
That's precisely what George Miller did, returning to the franchise's director chair for the first time since 1985's "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome." It truly feels like, at some point down the road, he asked the simple question, "You know what the action genre could use? A new benchmark." And now we have "Fury Road," setting the bar at a height that even CGI can't create, an incredible cacophony of sound, image, and idea, all coming together for a sweaty rush of pure cinema.
Decades from now, when fresh young filmmakers discuss what inspired them to make movies of their own, this is what they'll point to.
Stripped to the frame and ready to rumble, Miller streamlines his movie with remarkable precision, telling us exactly what we need to know when we need to know it and showing us the rest. Set unknown years after "Beyond Thunderdome," Max (Tom Hardy, replacing a certain sugar tits enthusiast) continues to wander the post-apocalyptic wasteland, no goal in mind except pure survival. Immediately in the opening frames, he's captured by the War Boys, members of a tyrannical cult led by Immortan Joe, who use him to pipe blood to the veins of tumor-infested soldier Nux (Nicholas Hoult). When Furiosa (Charlize Theron) drives the armored War Rig to ostensibly collect gasoline for the city, Joe learns she's kidnapped his beloved Five Wives, women used expressly for breeding, and taking them to freedom, causing the War Boy army to chase her down with Max strapped along for the ride.
As a plot, it's pure allegory. Here's the good guys, here's the bad guys, and off we go, rarely letting up for a break. As a cinematic experience, though, it's unparalleled, short of you mixing mushrooms, cough syrup, and Drano until stuff just started happening. Movies, both the good and the bad, can often be any one thing. Maybe the movie wants to be a storytelling device. Maybe a visual experience. Maybe it's a genre like comedy or horror, built to elicit a specific emotion. But sometimes, sometimes a movie can be all the things.
If "Fury Road" were just the visual extravaganza it is, you'd absolutely be demanded on opening weekend. If it were a mere collection of car chases, you'd still see it at least twice. George Miller, though, makes no little plans, for they have no magic to stir men's blood. "Fury Road" is ultimately the kind of avant garde blockbuster rarely seen before and likely rarely seen again. Ultra-commercial while achingly personal. Relentlessly entertaining while emotionally resonant. R-rated action spectacle and a wounded cry from the heart.
Beneath the eye-popping dazzles and intensely realized dystopian imagery, "Fury Road" covertly delivers a feminist rally cry, all the more remarkable for how seamlessly it's fused. One of the most hollow ways to describe female characters is "strong," because really, what does that even mean? That she's literally muscled? That she's courageous? That she kills the most bad guys? In Furiosa, Theron creates a female action heroine for the ages that comfortably stands alongside Sigourney Weaver's Ripley precisely for those reasons and precisely in spite of them. She's vulnerable. She worries. She's unsure. When she rescues the wives from Immortan Joe, though, it's on her own accord, breaking free from a quite literal patriarchy and harnessing her own agency. Max assists them along the way, but he's not the magic male ingredient that lights the fire. He's an ally who stands beside Furiosa as her equal.
Still, don't consider "Fury Road" an agenda movie. Miller might have things on his mind, but why force it into your mind when he can invite you into his? During the precious bits of downtime, he doesn't reduce Furiosa and Max to speechifying (each of them maybe gets a couple of hundred words throughout the movie). Instead, he allows his themes to breathe and play out through sheer action, never clubbing you with them, but keeping them lurking just beneath the surface.
When theorists refer to "pure cinema," this is what they mean. "Fury Road" rules as a remarkable fusion of idea and skill.
And what skill! What audacious, bone-crushing skill! George Miller is a 70-year-old man. Ordinarily that wouldn't rank high among important facts, but just consider where most 70-year-olds' heads lie. Maybe they're content with their life, maybe they're filled with regret, but either way, their legacy is probably set. When you watch "Fury Road," don't forget who made it, because it radiates the passion of a hungry young artist with something to prove.
Miller approaches the concept of "more" not as a challenge, not as a question, but as an expectation. Of course he has to give us more. Of course each scene has to top itself. Of course each moment has to top itself. This is just the kind of movie he feels compelled to make, and as "Fury Road" hurtles forward, we feel exhausted, but not overwhelmed. Stuff happens in this movie. My god, stuff happens in this movie. Cars flip and crash into other cars. Stunt people vault around on poles. A man strapped to the front of a tanker plays electric flame-shooting guitar because wouldn't you want your chase to have its own live soundtrack? Insane levels of visual detail fill the frame and decorate the fringes. And yet, for a movie with more than 2,000 cuts, we never feel lost, grounded by Miller at all times with a keen sense of geography and physicality.
Forgoing CGI and green screens in favor of practical effects and stunt work, "Fury Road" ramps up the stakes higher than most lesser action films because the stakes feel higher. When we can see what's happening and we know what's happening and we believe what's happening, that's when our knees start jiggling and our posture leans forward and a little grin sprouts, first of awe and then of joy. That's when movie magic goes down.
Money in the movies can be a heckuva tool or a heckuva crutch. "Fury Road," budgeted at $150 million, exceeds the other "Mad Max" movies by a wide gulf, and yet Miller uses that cash at his disposal to make things harder on himself, to expand his artistic vision accordingly and then heave his vast balls forward to achieve it. Consider this his plea to the filmmaking world, throwing down the gauntlet so hard it shakes the earth's core, hoping he inspires other action filmmakers that this is how much fun we can be, this is how awesome we can be, this is how essential we can be.
Please, please see it in theaters. Not a pirated bootleg, not streaming, not a DVD. Not on your television, not on your tablet, not on your phone. Make it tower above you and around you, and if your theater offers it on multiple screens, call ahead to ask which is the biggest.
"Fury Road" deserves it, and so do you.