Thursday 28 May 2015

Death metal: "Mad Max: Fury Road"

Blimey. George Miller has been biding his time since parking up the Mad Max franchise some thirty years ago: he wrote an unlikely smash hit (1995's Babe), only to follow it with a wounding, if fascinating, failure (1998's Babe: Pig in the City), and was last seen animating tapdancing penguins to keep himself on the studio radar. (From Mad Max to Happy Feet: there's a trajectory that speaks to the wider infantilisation of the movie mainstream.) His decision to reenter the action fray with Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth in the series, comes just as those same studios have bogged themselves down in the business of franchise building and brand expansion; at a moment when even a notional crowdpleaser like Avengers: Age of Ultron resembles nothing so much as an especially canny item of portfolio management.

What I thrilled to most about Fury Road - and it is thrilling, quite likely the most thrilling example of action cinema we'll see all summer - is the considered two-fingered salute it offers to that very corporate, risk-assessed model of filmmaking: though it demonstrates some of the meticulously detailed world-building Miller's fellow Antipodean Peter Jackson has of late become bogged down in, it moves through its own universe with a heightened degree of ruthlessly fleet, unfailingly idiosyncratic thought. Spending almost every minute of its two hours on the move, it is the blockbuster that shows up the exposition-bound Avengers movies (and, indeed, the Fast & Furious series, the Mad Max franchise's petrol-huffing offspring) as beyond bloated, not to mention square indeed.

This may just be what happens when a filmmaker is cut loose, both from the franchise mentality - though there is some assumption that, after the three-decade timelag, Fury Road will be the first Mad Max movie to enter the eyeline of the 16-34 demographic - and from the studio system itself. One of the few advantages to making a film in the desert is that it presumably reduces the chances of suits visiting the set to pester a director with notes and suggestions; what Miller has returned from his Namibian locations with is as much a (re)vision as a reboot, and you can either take its berserker flourishes, stapled as they have been to a story that changes gender and doubles back on itself, or you can leave them. (So-so box office so far suggests the Warner executives were keener to market something more ingratiating.)

Miller was apparently drawn back to this world by the opportunity to try something newly critical within the Mad Maxscape. Here is a universe that, much like Hollywood's dwindling creative pool, stands all but exhausted and in desperate need of refreshment, where years of squabbling over finite oil and water supplies have left everybody at the end of their tether, and you can't go five minutes down the road without somebody holding a knife to your throat. The general air of hot-headedness is established during an early chase - or, rather, the first leg of what's effectively one non-stop chase - in which, faced with a Biblical-looking sandstorm, all drivers elect to put their foot down and plough straight on, rather than seeking alternative routes. This is Fury Road in a nutshell: a film that steers insistently into a duststorm.

In fact, this Road is full of leftfield turns, from a futzing opening title card upon which Tom Hardy, playing the named lead, is billed slightly lower than Charlize Theron, as the imperiously named Imperator Furiosa. (Even christenings must be harder work in these parts. You'd have to anoint the baby's head with Castrol GTX, for one.) As that fiddle suggests, this Max proves rather more selfless than Mel Gibson's Reagan-era road warrior: he puts his fury in Furiosa's service, much as Tommy Lee Jones's washed-up cowpoke bowed to Hilary Swank's proto-feminist frontierswoman in last year's Western The Homesman. Blockbuster scaling means the vehicle of choice this time isn't a humble wagon, rather a thunderous 18-wheeler, but Miller - like Jones before him - retains a gentlemanly interest in this stagecoach's passengers: a coterie of young women whom Furiosa has rescued from being impregnated so as to be harvested for the milk that has become currency in this bone-rattling environment.

Much online outrage has been elicited by the fact a major event movie should have dared broach the subject of men attempting to control the bodies of women - or maybe the whiners were just put off by the film's conspicuous breastfeeding, as Nigel Farage was a while back - yet for all the sound and fury it generates in other areas, Fury Road hardly appears to make a fuss about upending our preconceptions about action heroes and gender roles. As in the recent The Drop and his appearance on TV's Peaky Blinders, Hardy takes naturally and unassumingly to the role of second banana, and frankly you suspect he'd have had little-to-no choice in the matter anyway, given Theron's utterly committed showing as the tough-cookie Furiosa. (Cohabiting with Sean Penn must be good practice.)

It may also be key that unlike today's MTV-schooled blockbuster directors - who hark back no further than to 1999's virtual The Matrix as a touchstone - Miller came of filmmaking age in the late 1970s, when the likes of John Carpenter and Walter Hill were still clinging to that old Howard Hawks dictum that character is best expressed through action. He shoots his stunts largely for real, in camera, with minimal CGI; inside Furiosa's cab, he trusts his audience to keep up with relationships that are established and developed through looks and glances - and, in Max's case, one tellingly sheepish thumbs-up - where current Hollywood wisdom insists every last nuance be explained away in reshoots so the schmucks in the cheap seats aren't left for dust. At times of doubt, the script reasons, shut up and drive.

There are clumsier interpolations - flash-cuts sketching in the idea that Mad Max might have some demons hardly add to what's already there in Hardy's performance - yet it's the unbridled, fifth-gear showmanship that grabs you, and which we'll almost certainly struggle to find much of elsewhere this summer: where other directors might send their ne'er-do-wells into battle to the strains of "Ride of the Valkyries", say, Miller amps the trope up to eleven in numbering among his nogoodniks a dude attached by bungee cords to a speeding speaker stack, thrashing out crashing chords from a double-necked, flamethrowing guitar. In-car entertainment has come a long way since the days of blue CDs on the Hallmark label, and Mad Max: Fury Road has the ring of a death-metal war cry: defiant, exhilarating, and - in this instance, a rare blockbuster that stays in your head for days afterwards - remarkably well-sustained.

Mad Max: Fury Road is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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