Friday, May 15, 2015

Morose Max and the Fiery Road Picture

Who would have thought?

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.

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