Who would have thought that a 70-year-old Australian filmmaker with merely a dozen features to his name (and whose only work over the past two decades has been family-oriented fare) reviving a 30-year-old franchise with a new actor in the lead role (whereas the original actor was made an international superstar by said series) telling the most minimal of stories and using primarily practical effects (mostly just augmented by CGI rather than leaning on it) and a lot of impressive physical stunts, would be the one to swoop in here in the year 2015 and take the Hollywood summer movie season by storm?
Well, it happened.
George Miller's Mad Max Fury Road is a refreshing return to a style of filmmaking we hardly see anymore. It doesn't really show us anything new. It shows us something old and that, in itself, is new. It is a grand, glorious, in-your-face action extravaganza that is breathtakingly thrilling and visually spectacular. It has charmed the critics (earning an almost unprecedented 99% on rottentomatoes) and is sure to make tons of money. It is going to be the movie to beat this summer.
Tom Hardy steps into the role of Max Rockatansky, the former police officer from a post-apocalyptic world where the main treasures are oil and water, who, following the death of his wife and child (glimpsed here only in the briefest of hallucinatory flashbacks), has become an amoral wanderer in a desolate wasteland, living only for survival and trying desperately to outrun his past. The story of this latest entry is pretty simple. Indeed, it is not only virtually identical to the previous two
films but to just about every lone stranger/gunslinger western you've ever seen (Max is like a futuristic incarnation of Eastwood's mysterious "man with no name"; he rides in, helps a group of people with a problem and rides out). This time he reluctantly aids a small group of women led by the warrior Furiosa (the splendid Charlize Theron) who are trying to escape their despotic "husband" that uses them to breed heirs to his "kingdom." That's it. It is the thinnest of premises upon which Miller
builds what is essentially a two-hour chase film (Miller himself has called it that) and yet somehow the distilled-down-to-its-bare-essence plot makes for an even more powerful cinematic experience. There is no complexity here. There is no depth. There are no gray areas. There is very little dialogue (especially from the lead). What there is are good guys and bad guys locking horns (sometimes literally) in the middle of the desert at 90 mph. It is an intense visceral experience
uncompromising in its power and passion. It is pure cinema made by a director who, despite his age, seems to be at the top of his form. It is an unapologetic summer blockbuster and as such should be seen where it deserves to be seen: on the big screen.
I really only have one minor quibble with it and that is in the casting of the lead. I have liked Tom Hardy in just about everything I've seen him in so far, but here he is somewhat... dull. One could argue that the character of Max doesn't necessarily give an actor much to work with, but I can't help but feel that someone else might have been able to do a little more with it. Hardy is physically capable and not underwhelming to the point that he detracts from the rest of the film, but at times when he is supposed to be brooding he looks kind of tired and on those rare occasions when he does speak, he just sounds a bit flat. In a film that is so relentlessly energetic, it is strange to have at its center an individual who is relatively lifeless. I've never thought that Mel Gibson was an especially great actor, but when one looks back at what he did with the same character, one sees there is perhaps more subtlety and nuance in his performance than he has been given credit for. Gibson's Max always seemed angry, like he was on the verge of unleashing that inner "madness" at any moment. There was a real rage behind his eyes (due, at least in part perhaps, to the inner demons the actor himself was battling) and this made his silent stoicism all the more electrifying and his acting out, when he did finally release all that pent up aggression in those stunning and violent action scenes, all the more palpable. Mel's Max was truly mad. Hardy's Max seems more... morose.
However, Fury Road is so excellent that, to a degree it doesn't really matter who plays Max. It could have been Gerard Butler
for all the difference it would have made (and indeed in some shots it almost looks like Butler). The reason to see the movie is not for the psychological/emotional depth of the protagonist or the sheer charisma (or lack thereof) of its lead actor. It is for the raw, kinetic filmmaking that Miller has brought back to an industry that was sadly needing it. Highly recommended.
There's a brief moment I love in the Dreamworks animated film The Prince of Egypt where Moses encounters the burning bush and is told to remove his sandals because he stands on holy ground. As Moses glances downward he notices a collection of tiny pebbles between his feet rolling away from the bush on their own. That image reminds me of the statement Jesus makes upon entering Jerusalem where he responds to the Pharisees entreaty to silence the singing crowd by saying, "If they were to be quiet, the stones would cry out." I've always kind of felt like that is what the little rocks beneath Moses are doing at that moment. They, through the action of their removing themselves from the holy ground, are declaring their creator, Yahweh, as their authority. Ironically, they, as mere rocks, are naturally showing more deference to the God of the universe than a living, breathing, thinking human being is doing. It's a wonderfully ironic and poignant image and it takes up about two seconds of screen time.
I mention that scene only because after (finally) viewing Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings earlier today, I couldn't help but notice that there were no scenes that inspired a similar sense of wonder or reflection. There were no moments that illuminated anything new for me about this age-old story. There were no insights into the character of Moses, Pharoah or God that made it an especially compelling experience. I felt like I was simply watching a darker, grittier and -- because of all the CGI -- more expensive telling of the tale. The performances are fine I guess (Sigourney Weaver is utterly wasted with, I swear, like two lines in the entire film) but the characters are pretty bland. Scott, as usual, does the spectacle well (the most impressive sequence being, as it tends to be in these movies, the climactic Red Sea crossing), but at 2 1/2 hours, the film, which is about an hour longer than the animated feature and about an hour shorter than the De Mille classic The Ten Commandments, felt longer than both combined, focusing a lot of attention on mundane details that, frankly, seem unimportant (the freed Isrealites traveling through the desert with Pharaoh in pursuit takes up about ten minutes of screen time and devotes a lot of attention to the minutiae of their being tracked, misleading the army, etc) but glosses over other things that could've been more fleshed out (Moses meets Tzipporah for the first time and then a scene later is marrying her; Prince of Egypt, at least, showed their courtship in a song/montage).
Just to be clear, I am not one of those Christians who expects cinematic adaptations of biblical stories to be obsessively faithful to the text. I might disagree with them, but I am not angered by the suggestion that Moses might have been insane and that his conversations with God were delusions (indeed, other films before this one have hinted at such a possibility, but in a more subtle and ambiguous way), I don't take issue with depicting God as a petulant, British boy with -- as my dad said -- a bad haircut, or I am not offended by the implication that a number of the miraculous events that occurred could have actually resulted from natural phenomena (I actually don't have a problem with that, although I noticed that the film conveniently sidesteps Moses turning his staff
into a serpent). I recognize that these are works of art and, as such, are expressions of the filmmakers' own ideas and worldviews. The Pietà says more about Michelangelo than it does about Mary or Jesus.
I just expect that they be interesting and/or provide me with something substantial to think about regarding the account in question. Ten Commandments did that. Prince of Egypt did that. Heck, even Darren Aranofsky's Noah did that. Alas, Exodus, though it is stunning to look at, does not. It commits the ultimate movie sin not of being blasphemous, but of being dull.
Take Unforgiven, Road to Perdition and The Professional, roll them
all together, remove any depth and/or substance, add a rock soundtrack, a
bluish/greenish tint to everything and, last but not least, stick Keanu
Reeves and a cute little canine in the middle of it all and you end up
with John Wick, a flashy, slickly produced and at times surprisingly
funny action flick that doesn't have one single original idea in his
head and yet still manages to be highly entertaining nonetheless. Reeves plays the titular character, a former hit man grieving over the
recent death of his wife (for whom he retired) whose newly acquired
puppy, a final gift from his beloved, is killed by some burglars who
break into his house one night to steal his car. The rest of the movie
is him seeking revenge on these lowlifes, one of whom is the son a
prominent Russian mobster.
That's it. That's the whole plot.
I liked John Wick and partly because of its very simplicity. It is, in a
way, a very honest and straightforward action picture. It understands
that whatever plot or narrative it does have is really just an excuse to
stage some kick ass action scenes. There's no elaborate conspiracy, no
drug deal gone wrong, no corrupt socio-political system that the
protagonist has to break up, etc. An ex-assassin's dog is killed and he
wants to take down the guys that did it. That's all. Naturally in
the process he has to dispatch every anonymous bad guy that gets in his
way (seriously, he must kill at least 50 people over the course of this
movie) in some exciting and extremely well choreographed -- not to
mention comprehensibly shot and cut -- action sequences. It's refreshing
to see a movie where the camera remains on the action for a while such
that you can actually see what is happening and to whom (not as long as
Soderbergh's Haywire, but still, relatively speaking, a long time) as
opposed to most action movies nowadays which are shot with shaky cam and
cut to within an inch of their life. Reeves, who still has his
limitations as an actor, is really quite impressive (what is he now,
50?) as he appears to do a lot of his own stuntwork and is really rather
agile in a very physically demanding role.
Yes, all of the
action movie tropes and cliches are here (a fun drinking game would be
to take a sip every time you see a helicopter shot of the city at night;
even if you made it to the end of the movie, the final credits would do
you in) and there isn't much to linger long in the memory after seeing
it, but so what? It's still a fun ride.
Despite not having written anything for my blog in a long time (sorry about that), 2015 is still shaping up to be a pretty exciting year for me cinema-wise. I have just started a new venture wherein I produce short YouTube videos (done entirely on the animation app on my phone) that recreate scenes from great movies using only stick figures. I call it "Stick Figure Cinema" (SFC) and I have already completed three entries.