Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
Okay. There might be a bit of a mea culpa coming (a slight one, mind you!).
A recent retro of the adrenaline-fueled, vehicle-crunching, body-flinging “Mad Max” films has brought me, for a third time, to a viewing of that most wildly over-the-top, bonanza-budgeted (so much so it’s worldwide take-in of almost 400 million dollars, which entirely dwarfs the box office tallies of any of the previous three entries, was considered – get this — a ‘disappointment’), uber-gooey-CGI-sploogefest (and, make no mistake – no matter how much the corporate machine wants to sell the notion – with all those little infantilized droogies the world is now full of happily parroting it as fact – that this Max movie was done with almost all actual stunts, with everything in-camera, is a large whopping can of horseshit – because while there’s some real stunts going on in the film, for sure, there are huge gobs of squirted computer imaging shot bukaki-style over almost every image of this film, with double spurting on the action sequences).
While it’s certainly not a crime for a film to be a CGI splooge-a-ramma (heck, if it was, the entirety of the Marvel studios would be behind bars) but… it was one of the things that admittedly set me against the film a bit the first time I went to see it; there was a certain resistance on my part, also stemming from the insane level of importance with which the film was having bestowed upon it, helped along in a large, very real way by corporate powers doing their best — and generally succeeding — to keep a generation of adults acting as adolescents, controlling them as perfect little mindless excited consumer drones by the notion that nirvana stands before them in the form of a storm trooper one week, to be replaced the next by a Jurassic Park dinosaur, and then the next by Max himself… and I simply hated the idea of my beloved, once ground-breaking franchise now being added onto that assembly line of consumer conformity.
Still, I went in, trying as best as I could to put aside my uncertain feelings and be open as possible to the experience (which was even further undermined by having to endure a visit to the local multiplex to see it, one of those dens filled with the worst consumer mindlessness you can find). Alas, perhaps unsurprisingly, it didn’t pay off. I mean, the detail and scope of the film were impressive, and the action sequences and explosions were relentless (is that a good thing?)… yet, overall, I felt underwhelmed. Unengaged.
Tom Hardy as the new Max, replacing the original Mel Gibson — who we were lucky enough to witness grow into greatness before our eyes over the first two films, then into a kind of unfortunate super-stardom softness for the third (falling perfectly in line with the overall indifferent execution of that “Thunderdome” entry) – I found a bit weak and ineffectual as the new leather-clad, limping, iconic tough guy of the apocalyptic Aussie landscape. Even knowing that he was meant to be subservient to the female characters in the film (a sort of understanding that, in today’s climate, this was the wise move to make) — and I’m not saying the move is a bad one (even in the second entry, The Road Warrior, which Fury Road most closely mirrors narratively, Gibson’s Max was already backgrounded, with him there to aid in the main thrust, which centered around the oil refinery community’s attempts to escape from their hyped-up, hair-spiked, sexually-ambiguous attackers who desired the gazoline), it’s just that even when Hardy’s Max does get his moments — after he has that mask removed from his face for a good portion of the beginning of the movie – a bold and blackly amusing move, I will say — I mean while he may be a right handsome and rugged bugger and all that, but he just doesn’t have the star quality of our favorite (Mad)man Gibson (and when I say ‘Mad’, based upon Gibson’s later exploits, I do mean ‘Mad’).
So, a scant few months later, seeing it playing on a program at the Cinémathèque Québécoise, in 3D no less, I decided, what the hey, considering I hadn’t yet seen it in that format, with my resistance to it having somewhat dissipated in direct proportion to the hysteria (with the infantilized adults having moved onto whatever next life-changing consumer product being sold at the movies), I’d give it another go – only this time far enough back from screen that I could perhaps actually take it in comfortably and not feel entirely barraged by the non-stop imagery and hysterical performances (with that strangely subdued Hardy one in the middle of it)… and I must say… I certainly did appreciate it more. Overall, still, terribly overrated, with pacing issues (but, what do I know, perhaps it speaks to a video game generation, where they’re used to the barrage, without need for real emotional breaks – and/or they just willingly accept large quick displays that replicate emotion in order to move on to the next adrenaline rush) but the distance – and the well-done 3D – really brought out the impressive visual excitement that much more (even if the epilepsy-inducingly over-edited and barely coherent first 15 minutes or so of the frantic pursuit and eventual escape from Max through the caves remains as poorly conceived and directed as ever – alas, this section of the film will never improve, it just has to be endured, I now know, with the knowledge that better stuff will follow).
And then came this third time, now at home, again in impressive 3D, on my home projector system, with 16 year old daughter and ex-wife in tow (with the two ladies having accompanied me through this entire “Max” revisit), which – while I won’t go so far as to say is a ‘charm’ in this case – did finally allow me to be less overwhelmed by the endless, overloaded action sequences that seem to never end (and never really build on each other — it’s not like one set piece blows away the next — no, it all feels like an endless barrage operating at the same, admittedly impressive level, high splooge-content and all — in comparison, when I think of The Road Warrior or Mad Max I remember specific stunts or moments that occurred, with the particular bodies and faces attached to them, while in this movie I lean towards remembering a large disembodied explosion)… and even recognize some admirable qualities within the film I hadn’t before.
I mean certain absurdities remain – such as this idea of a film in which a bunch of barely legal super-models are being carted around to be protected (who we first meet when Max stumbles upon them in the desert cleaning themselves in a veritable wet t-shirt contest) is a ‘feminist masterpiece’ because it has Charlize Theron’s Fury as the kick-ass lead is kinda silly (and I don’t care how much they keep trying to tell us in the film that matriarchy will be the saving wave of the future). I started a recurring joke to my daughter’s amusement during this screening in which wherever Fury, Max and the barely legals would show up in their monster oil truck, I would mimic a determined and serious Fury bellowing out ‘We’ve come… and we’ve brought the super-models’. That color-laden guitarist locked to the front of the head bad guy’s car, his instrument shrieking during every chase, remains a perfect example of the problem the film has elevating from comic book to any real creation of a gritty, genuinely lived-in world (something the other films were able to achieve with much greater effect even with, or perhaps because of, their much lesser budgets).
And, of course, there’s that CGI problem… or perhaps more aptly put, that CGI-usage problem; a propensity these big blockbusters have for bowing to the grandest of illusionary set-pieces in which the action plays out in defiance of any logic whatsoever (one perfect example — Max and the sick and delusional Nux, one of the used and abused ‘war boys’, who eventually turns ‘good’ by the end, in that incredibly over-the-top car accident, in which the vehicle overturns a million times — with Max chained to the OUTSIDE of the car no less — and they both absurdly survive completely fine).
On the plus side, I did manage to engage more with some of the characters this go around… certainly, with the tragic plight of the aforementioned bald Nux, played quiet beautifully, with wide-eyed naïve stupidity by Nicholas Hault, with his journey to find love and redemption perhaps the greatest part of the film. Even the Vuvalini tribe, forced to be stuck with that overtly didactic name choice (met in equally silly terms by the main bad guy’s thuggish son’s name of Ricktus Erectus… kinda reminded me of the Roman nobleman Biggus Dickus in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, but at least in that film they knew to do it for laughs), are played by aging actresses definitely worth their salt on-screen.
Perhaps the thing I appreciated most though was the sheer mind-boggling effort in continuity played out within shots during the action sequences; Miller will present the beginnings of one stunt, for instance, in one shot, and then catch the conclusion of it waaaayyy in the background of the next shot, with that next shot now concerned with an entirely different action set-piece. I’d say it’s this kind of wildly ambitious and impressive level of detail that I’d say, even with the flaws I find in the film, puts Miller up there as one of the great modern action filmmakers.
So… there it all is. Is it a full mea culpa on my behalf? An outright apology for openly expressing distaste for the film upon initially seeing it, daring the ire of a slew of infantilized adults outraged as if I was taking their (apparently ongoing) childhood away from them? Nah. My distaste with them continues. The film though, upon each viewing? Better. Though, that’ll likely be it for my return to the franchise, at least for another decade or so.
Of the order of preference of each film in the franchise itself? The Road Warrior remains the shit. Mad Max and Mad Max: Fury Road fight it out for position number two on the list (for vastly different reasons), with Thunderdome pulling up way back there in the rear. And even with this fourth entry having improved for me, I still ultimately feel it just hues too close to slick consumer ‘Blockbuster’ product.
For me, it’s clear. The song remains the same: the franchise should have ended on the second one, after having watched Max given initial life and achieving greater maturity through the form of Mel Gibson… left to finally disappear, fading away like a memory on the endless barren post-apocalyptic highway, surrounded by the wafting smoke of wrecked vehicles, now nothing more than a myth in a boy’s imagination. It would have been perfect.