The Most Beautiful Fraud: Mad Max – Fury Road

When you have dedicated your life to becoming a professional, it isn’t that hard to pick up an old skill, no matter how long it’s been since you exercised it.  Much has been made of George Miller’s advancing age (he’s almost twice as old as a typical action film director, and probably four times as a typical action film viewer), and of the fact that he’s stayed away from genre films for a good three decades, but this is predicated on the notion that making a great genre film requires constant work.  If anything, history has shown us that the best genre work comes from generalists who have perfected the art of filmmaking and are sharpening their blades against a new stone; specialists who never peek outside the boundaries of their chosen genres tend to either get bored or boring, and the worst work tends to be from people who never learned to cross their own boundaries.

At any rate, Miller has finally returned to the post-scarcity nightmare world of Max Rockatansky, some 30 years after he last left it, and the question was never whether or not he could still deliver a great action film.  Someone who made The Road Warrior, very possibly the most perfect action sci-fi ever lensed, isn’t going to have any trouble adjusting.  The question was, have blockbuster audiences — many of whose most rabid members weren’t even born when Mel Gibson broke a deal and faced the wheel in Beyond Thunderdome — would be willing to accept a George Miller-style movie in the age of Michael Bay-style movies.  It was probably inevitable, and possibly mandatory, that Miller would incorporate CGI effects into Mad Max:  Fury Road, particularly given the bothersome shooting delays and environmental hazards that almost kept it from being made, but his strength has always been less in his imagination than in the incredible power of his eye.

As it turns out, there was no need to worry; Miller hasn’t lost a step, and audiences and critics are all howling cheers for his return to the blood-stained road.  Fury Road isn’t the best Mad Max movie; it has a few obvious flaws, and it simply can’t compete with the stripped-down purity of The Road Warrior for a number of reasons, but it’s a magnificent action film just the same, the sort of movie for which clichés get minted and, hopefully, a standard against which the next decade or so of genre blockbusters will be judged.  Miller’s eye is as keen as ever; there are any number of shots in Fury Road that would simply take your breath away if he gave you even a moment to linger on it.  For all the chaos and uncertainty that went into filming, it looks like the work of a man who was completely in control of his production from day one; you would be hard-pressed to find a director in the upper echelon of arthouse geniuses, let alone populist craftsmen, who use light as effectively as he does here.  And he’s still got the ability to wrench some heart out of unexpected situations — an ability he no doubt honed doing kid’s fare for the last few decades — and to find dread and shock in the random cruelty of the world he made.

I won’t spend time rehashing the plot of Fury Road, not only because it’s been so thoroughly discussed elsewhere, but because it’s the least important part of the movie.  Explaining the plot of this movie is like explaining the plot of a canyon or a sunrise; you shouldn’t have to talk about it, you should just sit back and let it overwhelm you.  It’s got both too little and too much backstory — too little, because you’re forever asking the hows and whys of the barrage of cultic imagery bombarding you from every corner of the screen (an exercise that makes it far too easy to notice how little sense the whole thing makes), and too much, because there are a few moments that slow down the relentless hammer-fall of action with an excess of talk.  Properly understood, the movie should be, and is, as unceasing, bombastic, and mysterious as an opera performed in a foreign language; you know you are experiencing something mythic and meaningful, crammed with connotations you are not equipped to understand, but delivered with a maximum of aesthetic punch.

As a collection of moments, an assemblage of visuals and sounds and expressions and contusions, movies hardly get any better than this.  As fast as it moves, Fury Road sears one indelible image after another in the mind’s eye:  Max, strapped to the front of a car propelling itself suicidally down a ruined highway; a coterie of breed-slaves, draped in the only clean clothes on the planet, their bodies used as power sources; a confused and angry young man preparing for his own empty death and preparing to give it meaning by slathering his face with silver spray-paint; an old woman, barely alive but able to deliver hot death from a distance to whoever she can find with her eye; an impossible, teetering contraption of a vehicle extravagantly wasting precious fuel by hauling ass all over the desert carrying a legion of drum-beating martial slave-drivers and a flamboyant guitar player, gleefully enjoying his role as the last shredder on Earth.  It’s unforgettable, and with all that, who needs more backstory?

Replacing Mel Gibson as Max is the implacable Tom Hardy, who is both stupider and more soulful in the role than his predecessor.  It’s pretty dumb to complain about the marginal role he plays in his own story, if you’re at all familiar with the other Mad Max movies; he isn’t the hero, or arguably even the central character, in any but the first of them, instead doing exactly what he does here:  sacrificing himself, his body, his sanity, and his skill, to give a future to people who really have one.  Gibson’s stoic confidence and lethal self-sufficiency is transferred here to Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa, and she’s an instantly indelible action icon, all noble struggle and cynicism ultimately redeemed by determination.  Max may be the hero, insofar as he literally bleeds so others can live, but Furiosa is the star.  Other excellent roles are assayed by the menacing Hugh Keays-Byrne, a series regular, as big bad guy Immortan Joe; War Boy Nux (Nichoulas Hoult) as an aggressive rookie brute betrayed by his own belief in the mythos; and Melissa Jaffer as an old woman whose prized possession may be the key to human survival, far more so than the ill-fated child carried by one of Joe’s many wives.

There has also been an inordinate amount of chatter on the internet and elsewhere about the political meaning of Mad Max:  Fury Road.  Is it a feminist screed?  Is it a condemnation of the patriarch?  Is it an exercise in misandry?  I’m sure I don’t know, but it’s a pretty sorry statement that we’re choosing to fight those battles on the battleground of what is ultimately a pretty apolitical action film and not in the context of many other movies that are explicitly about those very issues but don’t have a blockbuster’s built-in audience and media attention.  The endless agonizing over what it is or isn’t says far more about us and the way we live today than it does about Fury Road, which, in the final analysis, is nothing more or less than a flawed but still magnificent action movie of a sort that, until a few weeks ago, we could fairly say:  they don’t make ’em like that anymore.

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