Thursday, 28 May 2015

Film Review: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

© Warner Bros. | Source: Forbes

Australia, USA; 120 min.; action, adventure, dystopia
Director: George Miller
Writing: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nico Lathouris
Cinematography: John Seale
Cast: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Zoë Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton

“Out here, everything hurts.”  – Imperator Furiosa 

George Miller’s Mad Max trilogy has left a decisive mark not only on the dystopian genre, but also on action cinema. The first part, released in 1979 and set somewhere in a post-apocalyptic Australia, tells the story of Max Rockatansky, played by Mel Gibson. The highway patrol officer finds himself on a vendetta against a violent motorcycle gang, responsible for the death of his wife and son. In Mad Max: The Road Warrior (1981), the loner Max sees himself up against yet another fuelled gang, which is threatening a peaceful community of settlers. The third part, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985), has the title character help a group of orphans escape from the wretched influence of Bartertown, a commune run by cruel Aunty Entity, played by a wonderfully wicked Tina Turner. Still today, all three films seem like a breath of fresh air. The dystopian setting puts an interesting spin on the usual realism of conventional cinematic narratives, and the stunt-orientated storytelling is not only exciting, but also serves as an inspiration for future action franchises such as The Fast and the Furious.

So now, thirty years after the release of the last film, Miller continues Max’s cinematic journey with a fourth instalment. In it, the title character (now played by Tom Hardy) helps rebel Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), war boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult) and a group of five female breeding slaves to stand up against ruthless warlord and cult leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). People who have read my trailer check for the film already know that I was thoroughly excited for this new adventure, since the action genre is very dear to me. The sensation of watching things blow up on screen, having characters engage in well-choreographed fight sequences, or of experiencing how thrill and suspense slowly build up in the pit of the stomach always leaves me feeling adventurous, – wild and free – like anything is possible. For me, it’s one of the most perfect forms of escapism. Having said all this, this is probably the ideal moment to mention that, so far, I have watched Mad Max: Fury Road twice. In one week. It is like Miller kicked out everything that was bad about the predecessors, took everything that was fantastic about them and multiplied it times ten. The result is a frigging perfect contribution to the action genre.

I have already gushed over the look of the film when the trailer was released. I like how the overemphasized orange and blue colours work together, how the vast and barren Namibian desert as a setting creates a gritty, heated, post-apocalyptic atmosphere. Additionally, the make-up and costume design brims with creepi- and craziness, the most memorable features probably being Immortan Joe’s futuristic, skull-like and slightly terrifying air mask as well as Nux’s body painting, making him look like a bizarre, diseased walking cranium.

The heart of Fury Road, however, is its excellent stunt work. Miller, who has already demonstrated in the previous Mad Max movies that he knows how to stage a good car chase, unleashes an explosive firework of delicious action sequences. Mostly done without computer-generated special effects, the stunts, in the midst of all the road rage and sheer frenzy, convey a certain kind of heightened realism. They thus evoke a sense of thrill and adventure far more exciting than any purely CGI-animated sequence could ever be. With the help of Cirque du Soleil acrobats and a large group of professional stunt people, the Australian director created a breathtaking action extravaganza, with fiery explosions, dynamic fights and thrilling high-speed pursuits. The scene in which Furiosa prevents Max from falling off her truck while they are taking flight from Immortan Joe and his gang, for example, always makes my stomach lurch like during an intense rollercoaster ride.

Amidst all the nail biting and wriggling about on the edge of the cinema seat, Miller, fortunately, also manages to balance those sequences of beautiful, pure adrenaline with touching quiet moments in which his characters are allowed to breathe and feel, helping the audience to form an emotional connection with them. Additionally, he embraces a profound complexity of topics, which elevates the film from sheer action spectacle to meaningful action spectacle. Themes such as human exploitation, sex trafficking and religious fanaticism, but also team work, family and the desire to belong, to have a home and a purpose, are touched upon in an engaging manner, drawing relevant connections to our contemporary society.

An essential improvement over the previous instalments is the role of women within the film. While especially the original Mad Max and Mad Max: The Road Warrior merely depict them as love interests, mothers and/or victims of brutal male force, Fury Road, finally, allows its female characters to step away from pure victimisation and take control of their own fate. Here, women don’t appear as mere accessories that look good and talk little, or damsels in distress meant to either be saved by a powerful man or face their demise at his hands. Here, women live, fight and die like their male counterparts. Luckily, however, Miller refrains from utilising the cliché of the ultimate, sexed-up Amazone. While Furiosa certainly is a kick-ass warrior woman, capable of defending herself, shooting guns and driving big trucks, she also is in touch with her vulnerable side, reflected in her longing for home and redemption. Furthermore, the other female roles support the escape from their oppressor Immortan Joe with their individual talents and strengths. Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) is fearless, Toast (Zoë Kravitz) is composed and smart, Capable (Riley Keough) is kind and loving, the Keeper of the Seeds (Melissa Jaffer) is in touch with nature. In Fury Road, female strength is diverse and taken for granted. As it should be. And, in the end, it is not gender that saves the day, but team work and mutual respect of both men and women. Equally.

Despite the focus on beautiful imagery, endearing action and social commentary, the film also leaves room for some memorable performances. Tom Hardy, taking over from Mel Gibson, gives Max a brooding, almost quirky quality. As a man of few words, it is his body language and countenance which deliver pain, strength and humour, turning Max into a quiet, yet expressive character. Nicholas Hoult’s Nux is delightfully out-of-control, and yet harbours a sweet nature. His journey from twisted, brainwashed cannon fodder to loveable and brave team player is a joy to watch. And, finally, Charlize Theron’s portrayal of Furiosa is certainly one to remember. Fearless and cynical, hardened and physical, she carries all the necessary gravitas for the role. Her uncompromising nature and her heartfelt longing for peace and freedom endow her with a complexity hardly seen in women of the action genre.

To say Miller’s newest work is an action film for women is an entirely false statement. It is certainly one of the rather few movies of the genre that depicts women as independent heroes as well as smart and creative team players. But this is only one of the many facets of the film. Uniting stunning stunts, fast-paced storytelling, amazing camera work, visual beauty, complex social commentary and a motivated cast, Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t an action film for women. It is an action film for all of us.


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