In Hollywood there seems to be a disturbing trend of rebooting or re-imagining films for newer audiences unacquainted with their previous incarnations. This is especially true in the science fiction and horror genres. Over the past few years, some really great films from my past have been given this honour by the geniuses in Hollywood. Films like “The Thing” and “Robocop” immediately spring to mind. The originals were just these really well crafted stories brimming with style and panache. The reboots/remakes/re-imaginings or whatever the correct terminology is were dull, insipid films full of shiny effects, characterization as shallow as a dried puddle and generally devoid of what made the originals so great in the first place.
That same opinion can’t be leveled at “Mad Max: Fury Road.” This is a re-imagining done right. A riotous juggernaut of a film, Mad Max Fury Road is easily the most satisfying film I’ve seen this year and a gleeful two fingered salute to more traditional summer blockbusters. I don’t quite know where to begin in describing this film without sounding like a total geek. It was just an absolute blast from beginning to end and so rich on a visual, storytelling, directorial and thematic level. Hollywood doesn’t always get it right but when it does in this rebooting malarkey, WOW!! Suffice to say that Mad Max: Fury Road really is outstanding.From the epic sweeping vistas and vividly hued landscapes of John Seale’s sumptuous cinematography to the nuanced storytelling and taut direction of George Miller to the insanely named characters and the literally mad action and stunts this is, “The Business”. Just one of those moments where all your expectations are met and you come out of the cinema beaming from ear to ear. This was such a great film. Exciting, fast paced, chock full of moments of utter “WTF???” and judging by the way it ends, the start of something spectacular (that is, of course, if it makes money).
Within the first twenty minutes or so this is most definitely a re-imagined Mad Max film only this time with the budget to match the vision of George Miller. When we first meet Max he is practically a feral beast, munching on two headed lizards and living off his wits and sheer animal instinct to flee, to survive. Beset by visual hallucinations of the people he couldn’t save, this Max (Tom Hardy) is most definitely mad. And considering the world in which he resides, I am not that surprised. In this world everything went pear shaped very, very quickly. Resource shortages, societal breakdown, nuclear war and environmental collapse are all mentioned over the opening titles in brief snatches of dialogue. What remains is an irradiated and desolate wasteland ruled over by the despotic Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his sickly mutated clan of War Boys. A world in which mankind has been reduced to fighting over the scraps of resources like starving animals and where women are seen as nothing more than a commodity ripe for production and procreation. It is into this diseased and twisted vision of society that Max is delivered after having been hunted down and captured by his marauding followers. Used as a mobile blood bag to replenish his ailing foot soldiers’ health, Max spends the opening thirty minutes or so as a glorified hood ornament and spectator to the unfolding events.
And it is in this opening thirty minutes that Mad Max: Fury Road plays its’ trump card, namely that of Charlize Theron’s character, the Imperator Furiousa. Most re-imaginings live or die by what they bring to the table to keep things fresh and exciting. In the case of Fury Road, the inclusion of Furiousa, ostensibly the Female Road Warrior gives the narrative an extra dose of subtext and character dynamics that have been largely lacking from the preceding films. When we first meet Max he is the epitome of a lost soul, a man clinging to the last scraps of his humanity. He’s a man who communicates more through actions than words. A role that is pretty much owned by Tom Hardy who does a great job of bringing this frazzled Max to life through terse body language, stares and short bursts of muttered dialogue. His performance is more than matched by Charlize Theron as Furiousa. She brings a real grit, determination and humanity to the role of Furiousa. It is Furiousa, not Max, who is the lynchpin of this movie and to be honest, the film is all the better for it. Furiousa is the catalyst for Max to regain his ebbing humanity and for her, redemption and hope. Over the course of the film, the two leads develop a nuanced and subtly shifting relationship that begins like two caged predators warily circling each other before developing into an unspoken bond of trust and dependency where their individual salvation is in the hands of another.
I think that’s the thing that I love about seeing these re-imagined films done well. They just fire the neurons in the grey matter and get me waxing lyrical about all the stuff going on behind the images. When I was younger, the Mad Max films were just the pinnacle of action cinema. I repeatedly watched them because they were just so damn exciting. As I grew older, I watched them less and less but when I occasionally did I would start to see the reasons why I loved them so much. It wasn’t just the incredible car chases, stunts and action that captivated me. It was also that they had a hidden level of themes and ideas permeating the story. Take for example the cinematic styling of the Mad Max films. Fury Road and its’ predecessors are heavily influenced by westerns. From the sumptuous sweeping photography by John Seale that evokes The Searchers to the solitary Man with No Name archetype that is Max to the marauding outlaws laying siege to the Stagecoach like War Rig, this is a modern day western writ large. But sheer visual spectacle isn’t enough for me in this day and age. The best films, the ones that stick in my memory, are the ones that have subtle themes and thoughts bubbling beneath the surface and demand to be seen on repeat viewing. Well, I say subtle but seeing as this is a Mad Max film with a reputed budget of $150+ million, subtlety means having your eyeballs pop out of your head, your eardrums reverberate from the roar of engines and your senses pummelled into the ground. Take for instance Miller’s depiction of gender equality and its role in shaping society. On the one hand you have the male dominated society of Immortan Joe and his allies, The People Eater and The Bullet Farmer. This is a society that views women as slaves to be exploited or objectified and where greed, corruption and oppression are the norm. This is nicely juxtaposed with the female roles typified by Furiousa, her wards The Five Wives and in the latter half of the film, her kin The Vuvalini of Many Wives. Without a shadow of a doubt, Furiousa is the heart and soul of the film who brings compassion and humanity into play against the pretty much animalistic and emotionless male characters. She is the equal of her male compatriots and is treated as such. Alongside Furiousa, The Five Wives and The Many Wives can readily be associated with the positive themes of hope, vitality and renewal.
As much as the subtext is important the real joy of this film is the sheer energy and carnage expended on screen. I thought Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior was pretty much the last word in wheel driven chaos. Fury Road makes that film look like a sedate Sunday drive in the country. You can tell in the decade or so that this sat in development hell, George Miller tinkered, honed and refined precisely what he wanted to see and feel when making this film. In a digital age, it is really, really heartening to see a film that is so obviously based in the physical world of stunts and practical effects. Sure, there is digital manipulation at work here but it is the kind of work that compliments rather than distracts from the narrative. And what a narrative it is. Who needs words when you have action that is as gloriously demented as this? I have to admit that for a good portion of the film I just sat with my jaw open at the sheer audacity of what was taking place on the screen. The design team went absolutely nuts on the look of characters and building vehicles that pretty much become characters in the film. From the buzzard tribe’s vehicles that look like they have escaped from Peter Weirs “The Cars that Ate Paris” to the monster truck madness of the GigaHorse and the juggernaut like War Rig this truly is a world gone mad. None of them quite hold a candle to the sheer WTF-ness that is The Doof Wagon however. Any self respecting army usually has some sort of moral booster to stir and inspire the troops to victory. Sometimes it is a bugler, sometimes a drummer. In the case of Fury Road, Immortan Joe has The Doof Wagon Warrior. This is a blind guitarist who sports a fetching red onesie whilst thrashing out a pulsating racket on a flame- throwing guitar whilst strapped to the front of a massive rolling sound system on bungee cords. Demented doesn’t even begin to describe it. And the stunts, my oh my, this is action saturation. You really get that visceral buzz of realising that yes, they did just blow up an oil tanker, flip a couple of big trucks, scream through the desert at high speed and give the stunt team a real workout for their money. It is just such an incredible buzz.
Mad Max: Fury Road is an epic reboot of the series that steps into a much larger world with subtle inferences about it being part of a wider mythology with Max as the wanderer of the Wastelands. The film is much like Max’s V8 Interceptor as it appears later on, a stripped down and totally rebuilt machine that looks the same but has much, much more power under the hood. Mad Max: Fury Road is cinema at its purest, stripped of all extraneous material and propelled by the sheer kinetic energy of its action. Absolutely bloody brilliant!!