Mad Max: Breaking All The Rules
Because “Max Mad: Fury Road” is unlike most films you will ever see, it can’t necessarily be reviewed the same way that other films can. And that’s totally fine.
**To avoid any and all potential spoilers or to just cut right to the chase, skip to the last paragraph**
Let’s start with the basics — this is one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen in a very long time. It isn’t trying to be deep, gritty and thought-provoking… which is precisely why it is all three. The Achilles’ Heel for films like “Punisher: War Zone” and, to a lesser extent, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is that they can’t resist continually calling attention to how dark and gritty they are (1). Mad Max has absolutely none of that — the dark and gritty bits are just part of the world that the film creates for itself. It sounds really weird to say it — and undoubtedly will raise a few eyebrows when I do — but the greatest strength of Mad Max (in amongst all the over-the-top homages to the semi-80’s aesthetic of the originals) is that there is an underlying subtlety that cause it to really hit for the audience. For example (Spoiler alert): during the film, Mad Max is continually suffering from PTSD and survivor’s guilt — and there isn’t a single flashback to explain, clarify or build upon that. You are given exactly as much information as you need to piece together “this is a tortured individual who has seen some real ****” without falling into the pit of having the proverbial “woman in the fridge” (2). This is also seen much more clearly in the content choice of the film.
Any time a picture is rated R, all bets are off in terms of what you are likely to see in that film. Some movies are trying to push the boundaries as far as they can go and so they try to go overboard in an attempt to find out just how far is “too far” according to the MPAA (3). On the other hand, you have films that aren’t necessarily wanting an R rating because they want to fill every corner of your eye with boobs and severed limbs, but rather because they want to film to be seen and appreciated by an older audience, so they do “just enough” to get that rating (4). Mad Max is very much the latter. In the entire film there are two scenes with any amount of nudity, in one of those you don’t even “see anything”, and neither actually happens in a sexual context… amounting to less than 20 seconds of screen time. Swearing is kept to a minimum (if there actually “was” any… I don’t remember there being any, but I don’t specifically recall there “not” being any either). There are only three scenes that the particularly squeamish will not appreciate, but even then it is done with an extremely subtle touch — the really gory stuff that a film like Hostel Part II would dwell on and show you in slow motion with vibrant color happens off-camera (full disclosure: sometimes it happens “just” off-camera).
Continuing on the theme of subtlety, any review of the film would be massively incomplete without addressing (at least in passing) the screaming meanies in the gender studies discussions (5). I’ve seen articles condemning Mad Max as evidence of the continued emasculation of men in America. I’ve seen articles and reviews praising Mad Max for having such a forward-thinking and progressive feminist apologetic. As someone who just saw the film, I really didn’t see either. In fact, just about the only way I can get to either conclusion is to look solely at the fact that Charlize Theron’s character is a woman… and that simply isn’t enough to fall into either category. In fact, by specifically not addressing the issue, I think this film does far more to address the issue than either camp would be willing to admit. There is no sexual tension between the two main characters, the “but yer a gurrrl” hamster stays firmly underground, and there is a legit fist fight between Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron that establishes her character’s badassery far easier than any amount of brusque, pseudo-lesbianic gusto shoehorned into a script could ever do. The film looks at Charlize Theron’s character with the eyes of “She’s a person who is really good at doing things” and simply leaves it there for us to sit around and watch her do things. As an unaffiliated party in the gender studies wars, I really appreciated the subtle and, in my opinion, much stronger statement made by taking the high road. I hope that this film (and others with similar sneaky tricks) is a sign that Hollywood is learning how to “do subtle” again and not just an odd aberration.
Now the other side of the coin. For all its subtlety, Mad Max hides it impeccably under a veneer of over-the-top, barely believable aesthetic and action choices that make the entire film an exercise in reconciling disparate extremes… which, quite frankly, is a large part of its entertainment value. For all the talk of subtlety and story and nuance, the entire film is essentially one really long action sequence. As my trusty compatriot said, “man… that movie just never stopped.” This is undeniably true. Even when the film does pause to catch its breath and give us a small sliver of character exposition, it’s punctuated by an explosion or a sequence of vehicular warfare (which is visually spectacular, by the way) that keeps the entire film chugging away at a ridiculous pace. It’s probably the fastest two hours I’ve ever spent in a movie theater.
Now, things to know — most of the film is CGI free. That isn’t to say that a computer wasn’t involved, but that it was a loooooot of composite work as opposed to freehand CG (6). The difficulty there is that if you see a screening of the film in UHD 3D, any little flaw in your work is going to stick out like a sore thumb. With a blister. Mostly likely one that has popped and is bleeding all over everywhere (7). That said, the film does a fantastic job of covering up the composite work and, unless you know exactly what you are looking for/where to look, you won’t notice a thing. If you are someone who is particularly squeamish or easily motion-sick, I wouldn’t recommend seeing it in 3D — as stunning as the visuals are, there are a couple of rapid-fire hallucinations that will probably freak you out. The other thing that I have to call attention to is the overall aesthetic. For those who are decently familiar with the series, you know that it originated as an 80’s post-apocalyptic thriller — the overall design of the costumes, makeup and vehicles do a fantastic job of pay homage to the wild and wacky imaginings of that era, without going so far overboard as to recreate the Tina Turner hurricane-fence-lion-mane fiasco. The crazy guys on the big rig with the flame-throwing twin-neck electric guitar and quad amp-stacks are a perfect example… it’s so punk it feels like you’ve just been punched in the face while at a mosh pit and yet it feels oddly appropriate for the world the film has created for itself. It’s another one of those extremes that feels like it shouldn’t work, but does such a fantastic job of just seamlessly floating into place that you don’t want to stop and question it.
The over-the-top design and insanely colorful characters collide with a fairly bland color palette to create a very fast-moving film with a gigantic scope that still captures the inherently lonely nature of the first two films in the series. In fact, my single biggest complaint with Beyond Thunderdome was that it felt like we went from a wild, savage, desolate and abandoned setting in the previous films to one that felt very cloistered, crowded and over-busy. Fury Road builds up a huge, telescopic view of the world and uses that to recreate the smallness and loneliness of the first two.
As for the story itself, there is one. I won’t reveal too much about it because I don’t want to spoil the movie for those of you who are going to see it, but there is a forewarning. There are a number of characters who are little more than props. You may hear their name once or twice, but there are really only five characters in the cast that it matters you know who they are. The film itself recognizes this by providing proper introductions for those five characters and then never really throwing a new name at you again. If you see the film and you find yourself asking the question, “wait, who was that?” Just know that the answer most likely doesn’t matter.
Mad Max is one of (if not “the”) best action films of the last ten years. It shows a remarkable amount of restraint in terms of its content choices and a number of its guiding principles are surprisingly subtle for a film of this type. While I cannot recommend it strongly enough on those grounds, it is worth remembering that this film does have an R rating (8). It is a highly entertaining film that doesn’t waste its time or yours with a lot of things that would normally destroy the pacing or entertainment value of the picture. As we enter into the wasteland of pointless summer blockbusters and atrocious horror films, it’s nice to come across a film like this that does so many different things right. In my opinion, the 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes is well-deserved. Go see it!
Mad Max: Fury Road
Rotten Tomatoes: 98%
(1) Punisher did this by continually upping the ante on itself in terms of violence and then explaining in monologues what kind of injuries had been inflicted on someone, and you need look no further than Katie Holmes’ “things are really bad down here” speech to Christian Bale in Batman Begins to find it — it’s the blinking sign that screams, “Hey, look at us be dark and gritty!” It’s like the white kid from the upper-middle class neighborhood talking like they are from the ghetto and telling everyone they know, “I’m just trying to keep it real, dawg… youknowwuh I’msayin?”
(2) The “Woman in the Fridge” is a shorthand for the rather prototypical trope of a character suffering the death or loss of a close loved one (generally toward the beginning of a story) that then serves as the launchpad for the story and character motivation. Bruce Wayne’s Parents (Batman), Frank Castle’s wife and two children (Punisher), Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben (Spider Man), Matt Murdock’s father (Daredevil) — all examples of people/characters that got “fridged”.
(3) Films in this category would be guys like Saw, Hostel, My Bloody Valentine, Lust/Caution, Nymphomaniac, Piranhas (3D), From Dust Till Dawn, any of a litany of bad horror films… those films that exist solely to appeal to drunk college students or dare the ratings board to drop the “NC-17” hammer on them.
(4) Notable examples would be Fury, Ladykillers (2004), Saving Private Ryan, Cradle 2 the Grave, Gladiator, Man on Fire.
(5) This is not meant as an endorsement of any stance over the other. A more complete rendering of my thoughts on gender can be found here: https://xristosdomini.wordpress.com/2014/09/22/setting-the-record-straight/
(6) In other words, much more Interstellar/Jupiter Ascending (digitally taking real things we filmed and inserting them in a real location we filmed), and much less Godzilla/Pacific Rim (Digitally inserting something that we pulled out of our butt and inserting it into a mostly real location we filmed) or Star Wars (Digitally taking a real thing we filmed and inserting into a fake location we made in a computer… I’m looking at you, episodes I-III!).
(7) I saw the film in a large format, 4K projection in 3D. For those of you that know me, you should know that is a huge deal because I never feel the need or desire to do that.
(8) …as the one nonsexual-boobs-outta-left-field appearance will rudely remind you