Mad Max: Fury Road

Sunday, February 28, 2016

One part of me is thoroughly delighted at the success of Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s a completely bonkers movie. It doesn’t fit into the blockbuster norm at all. Plus George Miller has been trying to make another Mad Max for ages. So it’s a nice comeback story - a man who has been lumbered making Happy Feet and Babe sequels scores a massive commercial and critical success.

But then there’s another part of me. The unsentimental side, who says, are you fucking kidding me? All of the critics are going bonkers over this? This is the movie that is appearing in critics’ top ten lists? Because this is not a great movie. It has loads of imagination and energy, but it’s also crass, monotonous and it’s lumbered with an incredibly dull central character.

Tom Hardy as Mad Max is Tom Hardy on autopilot. He scowls, he mutters and he looks ‘intense’. But he doesn’t look like he’s having any fun. Nor does his character or his performance contain any depth. He’s just a series of tics. It’s a lazy kind of performance. Tom Hardy sort of reminds me of Christian Bale. They burst into life at the beginning of their careers and then they plateau a little and trade off their ‘intensity’. Mumbling and grimacing with wild eyes is nothing if there’s no meat in the script or if there are no internal twists and turns within the character’s journey. Because, yes, Max is constantly being pulled this way and that way, but it’s entirely physical. As a person he just is who he is. Nothing more, nothing less. And he’s not a particularly fun, interesting or engaging character.

More effort is invested in the character of Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron. She has the vulnerability, conflict and complexity that Max lacks. As the driver of an armoured truck called the ‘War Rig’, she liberates the wives of the local warlord, Immortan Joe. And so all hell breaks loose.

But despite the feminist, eco-warrior pretext of the movie, character development is at the bottom of the agenda. And there’s zero emotional connection to anything that’s happening. So although women are in jeopardy and dastardly individuals are trying to recapture a pregnant girl, the human struggle behind the movie is a secondary consideration to blowing shit up.

Don’t get me wrong, though. It’s really good action. It’s always entertaining. But we don’t have a feminist masterpiece in the vein of Aliens. Nor is it a treatise on the Middle East conflict or environmental devastation. It’s a loud action movie that occasionally leans in interesting directions but never settles for long enough to make any interesting points or metaphors.

Part of the thing that makes Fury Road entertaining is also the thing that holds it back. Its constant forward momentum. There’s no room to breathe. No room for silence or contemplation. It’s very Australian. What do I mean by that? There’s a tendency for Australian films to be very loud and very brash. Of course there are exceptions to that stereotype, but Fury Road falls into the Baz Luhrmann mould of more is more is more is more.

But it’s not. Excess is exhausting.

The overacting is also sometimes hard to take. Nicholas Hoult, who played the kid with the bowl haircut in About a Boy, overacts like crazy. And yeah, I get it, he’s supposed to be taking drugs to enter a state of suicidal rapture, but the performance is far too theatrical.

The main villain, also, is completely ridiculous. He’s some fragile, crotchety old geezer who wears an oxygen mask in the shape of a skull. The mask looks pretty cool but he looks like he should be getting his nappies changed in an old people’s home. Also, the idea of this hideous little Oompa Loompa mounting all those women is appalling. But then again, I think it’s supposed to be.

However, all of these negatives can be countered by the fact that among Immortan Joe’s war party is a guitarist with a double-necked guitar. Like some fucking god, he hangs from a wall of amplifiers and churns out heavy metal riffs while his guitar belches fire. Seriously, it’s the most hilarious, most fucking awesome thing I’ve seen in a film for years. And in a weird way, it makes complete sense. Military drums have been used for centuries to demoralize the enemy (big bastard drums also feature here), so why not have some heavy metal?

Of course, you have to consider if this is an appropriate use of your resources. You know, you’re living in a post apocalyptic wasteland, and you’re using your precious gasoline to billow fire from a steampunk guitar. And you’re using electricity for all the amps in the world. But you know what, fuck that. Immortan Joe is obviously some Saddam Hussain, Kim-Jong-il, Nicolae Ceausecu, cult of personality type mentalist who wants to constantly show off his wealth and abundant resources, so yeah, he’d totally do this.

And those guitar riffs fucking rock! And it’s hilarious that he changes his speed of playing to how quickly the war party is going. When they’re going really fast, he shreds like a motherfucker, but when they slow down he methodically hacks some chunky chords. And at one point he even gets involved in a fight. So even if the film as a whole is just too excessive for my taste, this one bit of insanity does a hell of a lot to make the film more enjoyable.

It’s also got to be said that the stunts are excellent and that the photography is consistently amazing. I also got a kick of the retrograde fight scenes that were speeded up like this was filmed in the 70s or 80s. It’s just the characters and the script which aren’t up to much.

I think the film is also a victim of raised expectations. This is a film that is now nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. I’m all for genre films getting nominated for the big prize...but only if they’re good enough. And this film isn’t. There are some great sequences, but the movie doesn’t really add up to much. Not that it has to make some grand statement or anything, but you’ve got to feel something more than ‘oh, that was cool’ if you’re going to get all these plaudits. Aliens, The Fellowship of the Ring and Raiders of the Lost Ark, as three of the best examples of the action/adventure genre, succeed because of the human heart beating within them. They have really cool sequences, but they also have people you’re invested in. Mad Max: Fury Road is just a bunch of occasionally cool shit that should get nowhere near an awards ceremony.

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