Thursday, May 28, 2015

Retro-stupid Refuel - Mad Max: Fury Road Review

Mad Max: Fury Road is, in spite of all the hoopla to the contrary, exactly what it says it is on the tin, and lots of it. Intense car chases, brutal action, and over-the-top spectacle are all over the place in this one, all laced together with a barely-there revenge plot thinly layered over a pastiche of the entire plot to Road Warrior melded with the kids’ plotline from Thunderdome. Everything that’s original here is in the visuals.

And what epic visuals they are. Everything here is bigger and nastier and more chromed-up and over-the-top than ever before. The dune-buggies of yesteryear are gone, replaced with monster-trucks, tank-treaded muscle cars, and sedans bristling with insanely huge rusty spikes. Forget all that nonsense about gas being rare after the apocalypse; in Fury Road, every vehicle is covered in so much armor plate, spikey-bits, and iconography that none of them can be doing better than five miles to the gallon.

I do love the way the cultures of post-apocalyptic Australia have evolved in this franchise. In Mad Max, they were barely different from present-day suburbia, struggling to maintain a pocket of normality. In the Road Warrior, that normality was gone, but most of the people were still everyday Joes and Janes, struggling to find safety in a world gone mad. The inhabitants of Barter Town had made peace with their post-apocalyptic existence, trading the last bits and bobs of their lives from before in exchange for water, food, and barbaric spectacle.

The people of Fury Road, however, come off like the descendants of the airplane kids. They inhabit bizarre cultures built around survival and apocalypse-shaped religion. Life is cheap, except when it’s pure, untouched by the ravages of the apocalypse, at which point it becomes more precious than gold and gasoline and bullets. The pre-apocalypse world isn’t a memory but a myth, and its death is a point of theological contention.

This only adds to the impossibility of placing this movie in chronological order with the others. The opening implies it belongs between Mad Max and Road Warrior. Things happen to Max that make it impossible for this movie to have happened before Thunderdome. More than that, however, this Max is clearly the post-Thunderdome Max. Where the Road Warrior didn’t give much of a crap about the settlers until (maybe) the very end (and I’m not sure he really cared more about them than he did about his vengeance), but then goes out of his way to save the kids at the end of Thunderdome, Fury Road’s Max signs on pretty quickly to doing what he can for the helpless innocents of this film.

And yes, in spite of all the politically-fueled nonsense you’ve probably seen surrounding this film, there are helpless innocents in need of being saved by Max here. Frankly, it’s hard for me to see how this film is all that much more feminist than the very-similar Road Warrior. Yes, there's no rape scene like in the beginning of The Road Warrior. Instead, we get a scene of women with the bodies of fertility goddesses being milked like cows. It's not quite as kinky-erotic as a similar scene in Pink's “Raise Your Glass” video only because the women are bovine-docile instead of writhing about in restraints. These gals and their milk kinda-sorta pay off at the end of the movie metaphorically, but it's so heavy-handed it feels gratuitous.

Charlize Theron is great in this movie, and her Furiosa character does have a more interesting arc than Max does, but that's not saying much. To praise anyone for their acting in this flick seems a bit much. It's all perfect for what it is, but make no mistake: this is a car-chase movie punctuated by bits of dialogue. It's an awesome car-chase movie, but it's no Casablanca, or Princess Bride, or hell, Star Wars.

So Theron's acting primarily involves closeups of her face with one of two emotions on it: either some-asshole's-gonna-pay or oh-shit-the-only-choice-we-have-is-to-crash-straight-through-this. Grim, vengeance-fueled determination or edge-of-your-seat, hope-we-make-it-through-this-too-late-to-swerve-aside-now. Both are picture-perfect and entirely in service to the film's actions beats, giving them the drama-nitro they need to rev up beyond the potential of mere cars crashing about in the desert.

And sure Furiosa's an awesome kick-ass character, and the way she and Max come to understand one another very much echoes a similar relationship in the last Riddick movie. The atonement thing is cool, and it's a thread they share. But this movie also comes with a literal truckload of defenseless damsels in distress. The Vulvalini are bad-asses... so long as they avoid fist-fights. When it comes to mano-a-mano action, the guys with their massive chests and thick fists dominate the action with all the thuggish brutality of jungle beasts. The Vulvalini are outlaw banditas and ace shots with a gun, but they're also victims to be literally crushed under the wheels of a big-bad's monster truck. If there's a political message in this film, honestly, it's the same message you get from an NRA poster of a smiling 12-year-old girl holding a bright pink AR-15 and captioned "God Made All Men, But Smith & Wesson Made Us Equal."

So leave your pretentious at home, bring your 12-year-old self that thrills to car-crashes and revenge-fueled power fantasies, and come get your retro-stupid refuel. This insane film is chock-full of adventure seeds and crazy ideas to inspire the DM in you, from bullet farms to chrome-worshipping neo-viking suicide bombers, to stone-column citadels carved with crazy skull symbols and topped with garden paradises and pleasure domes.  The murder-hobos in your life will thank you.