By the time you read this you'll probably have seen Mad Max Fury Road, George Miller's astounding return to the franchise he gave creative life to in 1979. And if you haven't… for once believe the hype.To echo the plaudits, MMFR is a huge, tattooed and scarified middle finger to just about every major studio blockbuster that claimed to be an 'action' movie in the last 30 years. It really is that good.
Releasing the movie a mere couple of weeks after the confused mess that is two and a half hours of Joss Whedon's studio exec-hamstrung (if you believe his recent whining in interviews) Avengers: Age of Ultron is a stroke of genius. After what seems like an eon of utterly CGI-drenched stuff based on (adolescent) comics and impossible physics where even 'normal' humans move with lightning speed and can survive any number of crushing collisions with walls that cave in like memory foam, here comes Miller reminding us that explosion-filled, loud, visceral thrills CAN make not only narrative sense, but can still have us gnawing at our cuticles like tiny children in front of an episode of Doctor Who as well. I swear that throughout the film, not ONCE did my mouth close. I think I may have even grasped the man next to me's hand at one point. MMFR is filled with a master's innate knowledge of what makes a simple chase sequence not only coherent and exciting, but almost enough to fill a screen for two whole hours without once becoming repetitive, boring or anything less than gripping. So how on earth has Miller managed this vastly welcome renaissance of a genre that looked so spent? Well, there's so much more going on under the hood (if you'll forgive the car metaphor) of Miller's glorious celebration of speed, destruction and (yes, really) feminism.
A lot of this may be down to Miller's Australian background. The freewheeling aesthetic at the heart of this movie draws heavily on the indigenous culture of gritty outback realism coupled with an anarchist's appreciation of those wide open spaces which we lack in the UK. For this reason there's a lot of Western about MMFR. But, as in the second and third Mad Max movies, it's a Western peopled by Australian crusties, But Miller goes far beyond mere body adornment and tattoos (and also avoids the annoyingly trite gewgaws of bloody steampunk - my particular favourite detail was the War Rig's human femur as a gear shift). Here the marks of identity that come with every character range from the fine white lines of subjugation and self-harm that decorate both Immortan Joe's's War Boys as well as his Wives. MMFR is a film that also belongs the tradition of Todd Browning, Luis Bunuel or Alejandro Jodorowsky, warping genre by revelling in physical non-conformity. Fury Road is filled to the brim with misshapen bodies, amputated limbs and freakish fashion. One brief scene involving women kept as a source of milk (to drink) could have sprung straight out of El Topo or The Magic Mountain. Even Charlize Theron's character has an arm missing, necessitating the use of a prosthetic. But this celebration of the ragged ends of a civilisation gone insane delights in the strangeness, letting the fever dream drift over the viewer until you inhabit this world. One can only imagine how the casting sessions went.
Secondly, for anyone who's forgotten how good the original Mad Max films were, one of Miller's most radical contributions to car chase movies was his revolutionary use of editing. This is cutting of the highest order, and it's a dark art that seemed to have been forgotten by every director since Michael Bay and explains why every second of every Transformers film is a confusing loud jumble of blurred nonsense. Every second of MMFR is coherent, and paced like a swiss watch on steroids. Even the rare moments where the film slows down to allow you to breathe are perfectly timed. There's one post-pile up moment where Max emerges from the golden sand which is just as oddly surreal and transfixing as all the hurled spears and war-mongering.
And for all its violence this is no testosterone fest, but a salutary lesson in post-apocalyptic feminism. Again, to bait all those Whedon fans, measure MMFR against the garbled fudging of women's roles in Avengers or even stuff like Firefly. Here each woman's role is formed by the grim implications of rape and slavery in a society where the simple act of survival of a tribe becomes twisted by despotism, tyranny and a bogus system of religious symbolism (the War Boys, in their desperate 'half-lives', face violent annihilation with a chrome death's head grin, sprayed from a can, believing they're heading for apotheosis in Valhalla). This is no accident, as Miller used feminist playwright Eve Ensler, an expert on the atrocities in the Congo as a consultant. Essentially the film is fascinated by the implications of power in a near-medieval society and finds the real wisdom residing in female strength. What's more (and this is massively heartening) a large number of major (and positive) roles go to women in their 60s and 70s. To be truly faithful to facts, the real hero of this film is Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa: a woman who has played a waiting game since childhood to gain freedom for her and her female charges.
A synopsis (as was discussed by my friend and I in the pub afterwards) is also another clue to where Miller and co. have absolutely hit the nail on the head. The plot is almost laughably simple. And simply bonkers. Again, compare this to Marvel's more recent product (discounting Guardians of the Galaxy, which was a real hoot) where plot threads and insanely cloddish expositional dialogue obscure the occasional whip-smart wisecrack. Miller has a veteran's instinct for what makes a film work. It may sound utterly pretentious, but his remarks about seeing Fury Road as a form of cinematic poetry makes perfect sense. He has stated that this is a film that could be seen (without any subtitles) anywhere in the world and it would still be completely comprehensible: and he's right. The whole film probably contains about ten pages of dialogue. This concision allows every other detail in the movie to help convey back stories and detail, giving it a richness that no amount of blurby exposition can solve. Tom Hardy as twitchy old Max, delivers scant remarks, all prefaced with unsure grunts which convey his fight with insanity by making us believe that he's come so far that nothing can go past unquestioned or without a worried shake of a guilt-filled head, filled with hallucinations of his dead family and friends. What's more, you don't even see his full face until about halfway through the movie.
To sum up: Theron hits the road in a giant 'War Rig' - a big black truck that looks like it just got pimped in a very dark fetish club - with treason on her mind. She's stolen the Citadel leader, Immortan Joe (played to the hilt by Max veteran Hugh Keays-Byrne) 's bevvy of 'Wives' (essentially the film's only conventional eye-candy): young women who are kept as breeding machines. No longer prepared to be treated as 'things' the women (one of whom is pregnant) attempt to reach a place of sanctuary. Joined by former road warrior, Max Rockatansky (Hardy) they then go for a two-hour chase across the best deserts I've seen since Lawrence of Arabia (in actual fact, Namibia). The post-apocalyptic hell serves (pretty much as Monument Valley did in John Ford's Stage Coach) as a superbly linear backdrop to the action, which involves pumped-up dune buggies that ROAR with throaty V8 engines along with an army of other modified gas-guzzling monstrosities. One even comes complete with a set of big war drums and a GUITARIST. This is a society which depends on the triple gods of water, oil and bullets. Pretty much like today, then…
Max and Furiosa cross a desert or two, and then go back again. Things blow up. People get mangled. And that's about all there is. And the amazing fact is that you really don't need more. I saw MMFR two days ago and I'm STILL thinking about it.
Of course, too much proselytising will transform a two-hour joyride through surreal mayhem into something it would never claim to be. And yet MMFR's brilliance is that it reclaims a genre grown so tired and hackneyed due to its reliance on a slickness born of studio accounting and computerised reliability. While Fury Road does boast CGI trickery, it merely serves as a way of more efficiently delivering the very real stunts and destruction wrought by Miller's cast and crew. never once do you doubt that what you see on screen is exactly how it would go down. Such suspension of disbelief seemed impossible in this day and age. It's taken a 70-year old Australian to show us that fun hasn't gone from our screens forever.