George Miller’s ‘Mad’ Max Rockatansky returns in a tanked up, high-octane beast of a picture, that is not only goddamn marvellous in its own right, but also part catalyst for a dramatic cinematic swing in the right direction…
*Fury Road features on ILT’s Top 10 Films of 2015! Find out where it ranked here.*
A few weeks back I mentioned that action cinema was rapidly ascending to the peak of a new golden age, citing Mad Max: Fury Road as one of the reasons why 2015 is highly likely to be the year that oh-so-welcome rise from the ashes once again increases significantly in gradient. From the teaser trailer alone, I had so much confidence in the film’s likely quality that the experience almost felt like a formality as I finally took my seat at the theatre in downtown Vancouver on Saturday night. Having a piece of art not only match, but actually surpass expectations is a rare event. George Miller’s flick – which at one point looked as though it would never be made – is one of those rare events, and although success felt inevitable, witnessing the finished article was still nothing short breath taking.
Gloriously constructed in writing, concisely taken apart and put back together in storyboarding and shooting, before being fine-tuned to the max (see what I did there?) in post-production (including a banging score by producer Junkie XL), Fury Road is a classic example of detailed filmmaking perfection. Explosive from minute one, everything falls into place without the need for any overblown setup or backstory. Such an approach sets a tone so intense that, by the end, it’s impossible not to feel stiff, a little cramped, almost knackered. The cinematography and editing are nothing short of masterful, with each shot and cut dictating the frequent use of slower frame rates in order to make the whole thing visually viable against the breakneck tempo. Miller’s unique style drives proceedings to the point where the picture is grabbing and practically shaking you. On top of that it looks utterly fantastic; the desert wasteland sleek but filthy, communicated to us by way of dramatic, but never over the top scale and scope, and juxtaposed beautifully against the chaotic nature of the chase scenes that continuously drag themselves to the forefront of the frame in a frantic halo of rich gold, blue and black. The sound pounds delightfully and frighteningly, chugging, bashing, zipping, zooming, burning rubber on your ear drums as it matches the visuals shot for shot in intensity.
It’s clear the production benefitted tremendously from being in so-called ‘development hell’ for all those years around the turn of the century. A version released ten years ago would no doubt have suffered, at least in some way, from the same confused, disjointed visual effect output of other movies realised during that era. With the effects proving to be such a crucial part of Miller’s vision, the fact that he was made to wait until a time, coincidentally, when technology had not only caught up and allowed him to make the picture to the minimum desired standard, but also to go a lot further then he likely envisioned in the late 90s/early 00s, was an almighty blessing in disguise. Indeed, the mixture of physical stunt work (both human and vehicular) and limited, but practical use of CGI, combines flawlessly with the cutting edge framework and well controlled camera placement, culminating in an authenticity that one buys into without question. Such an achievement is testament to Miller and his team’s commitment to realism within insanity.
Contributing majorly to the sustainment of the 100mph, constantly ticking over process of engagement, are the larger than life characters and performances, led by Tom Hardy’s titular Max and an inspired turn by the seemingly never aging Charlize Theron. Like Miller’s previous incarnations of his post-apocalyptic tale and setting, dialogue is kept to a minimum, but comes across as highly effective without being overly expositional. This is thanks, in part, to the awesome, well designed and practical mythology running parallel to proceedings. In a space and time where everything from gas to water is preserved and rationed, it seems appropriate that words and breath fall into the same category. With everyone highly strung and in a state of constant desperation, concentration is as vital as any fuel. As it happens, many of the characters with a fair bit of chat wind up dead, in various fashions ranging from amusing to horrific. Whatever the role or scenario however, the cast provides a believable presence, complete with rationale to their actions based within their universe (or, perhaps more appropriately in the world of Mad Max, zero rationality), and, ultimately, depth without reason – exactly what a great action movie needs in terms of ground level interactions and overall character conveyance.
Tying everything firmly together at the seams is the neat characteristic that I always adore about this sort of film: the little things. The steering wheels, Joe’s breathing/life apparatus, the half-life spray, the numerous weapons hidden inside the war rig, the use of human ‘blood packs’, Furiosa’s arm, the hand signals/faux religious symbolism, the human crow-type stilt-walking creatures imbedded amongst the dark, discarded wasteland, post-apocalyptic war drums on wheels (complete with, amusingly, a seemingly massive waste of gas that is a permanently present double-neck guitar/bass-wielding shredding dude) etc. etc. – it all adds to the rich texture of the production. The crucial factor that makes these numerous minute details easy to accept without question isn’t simply that they’re ‘cool’, per se (although this itself is true throughout the picture), but that each intriguing addition is genuinely relevant and actually highly practical within its own universe – a universe created, measured, and portrayed solely with strong story development and concurrent audience reaction in mind. This sort of thing is why, regardless of genre, that I will forever admire a truly well produced, well-reasoned labour of love in the film world. No matter the time, the place, or the rules of the world depicted; a connection is felt. That is the definition of great art.
The term ‘masterpiece’ gets thrown around rather a lot these days, so to break from that I’m going to suggest instead that Fury Road – like Mad Max and The Road Warrior thirty-five years ago – is more of a blueprint of pure cinematic brilliance, as well as a demonstration of outright balls in this day and age. It’s a throwback to the cult classic formula and a simultaneous fuck you to the conventions of modern mainstream cinema. The one big difference from its prequels however, is that Fury Road looks and feels so at home in a packed multiplex, on an IMAX screen, and altogether lodged so firmly in the hectic, fibre optic jungle that is social media. This demonstrates not only the extent to which action cinema has re-evolved during the last five years or so, but also how the attitudes of general movie-going audiences have, in their own way, followed suit.
Would a Mad Max sequel/reboot have had this much buzz or success ten years ago? The answer is simple: no. Whilst in more ways than one Fury Road epitomises the new golden age of action that I keep going on about, crucially, the production itself and the reaction to it also conveys what could be described as a new era of cinematic knowledge, understanding, ambition, execution, and, most importantly, trust on a wider, grander scale than action alone. And whilst it’s obviously great that writers, filmmakers, effects teams, producers, and even studios are increasingly exhibiting these attributes, the overwhelmingly impressive aspect of progressive achievement summed up by Fury Road is that of en masse audience acceptance, anticipation, and contribution to the accolades it thoroughly deserves – all in the face of complete non-convention on the part of both Miller and his creation.
There’s still some way to go before a new, all round cinematic golden age arrives to match the heights action is rapidly reaching. A good start would be the Academy recognising a film/genre of this ilk in departments such as direction, writing and acting, as well as, what should go without saying, cinematography, editing, sound, design et al. Fortunately, Fury Road is a key milestone in such developments, and a massive step forward in a process that one hopes will see many, ever-greater strides made during the coming years.
Now pick up what you can and run.