Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
Seen today, the most notable aspect of the 1982 “The Road Warrior” is its starkness. It’s built on simple cues and oppositions, and many of its visuals have the it’s-all-there eloquence of comic book panels. Even if, like me, you find the movie’s mythologizing to be a drag, its brevity and simplicity can be vivifying. Like the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, it clears away the cobwebs of affectation, and returns the medium to its basic components: image, rhythm, and movement. The plot of the movie is scarcely worth talking about. It’s about a loner, Max, who teams up with some good guys to outrace some bad guys.
With “Mad Max: Fury Road,” director George Miller returns the franchise to the comfort of that straight-line dynamic. It is, in some ways, a brutally simplistic movie. When the inevitable big car chase peters out, Miller simply does it again, this time in the opposite direction. I don’t think this is due to a lack of imagination on Miller’s part. It is, rather, a conscious decision: he wants the narrative to be basic enough to be communicated visually. The richness of Miller’s imagination may need that limitation. Given enough canvas, you sense the director would paint himself to death.
But with “Fury Road” Miller isn’t out to repeat himself. He’s out to top himself. He’s out to top everyone else, too. Visually the picture invites comparison with the silent work of Fritz Lang: not only is it eye-popping, it’s singularly eccentric. The characters and vehicles have an ethnographic richness, and they’re so novel they’re discombobulating. Head villain Immortan Joe drives a monster truck with a cab comprised of compounded Coupe de Villes. Roaring across the wasteland, its improbable frame crawling with snarling cretins, it looks like something spun from the combined visions of Ed Roth and Picasso. It’s fascinating, but there’s scarcely time to fix an image of it before you’re flitted to something else. Miller doesn’t linger on anything; the action is planned and cut together with ruthless efficiency. Disdaining the contemporary practice of creating sequences from shards of indiscriminate “coverage,” Miller and his editor Margaret Sixel stick scrupulously to storyboards, using them as one typically uses a screenplay. This gives the action a structure and solidity that have been absent from action films since the ’90s — and I suspect it’s what people are really responding to when they praise the picture’s “practical effects.” (Despite what you’ve heard, there is plenty of CGI in “Fury Road.” Also, the film has been color graded so that it resembles blue-orange sherbert.)
All of this extravagance is at war with Miller’s simplifying ethos. He’s limited his canvas, but that canvas isn’t sturdy enough to support his aspirations — he paints right through it. “Fury Road” presents a paradox in that its very bigness makes it feel paltry. Its sensual exuberance overwhelms what drama and suspense are inherent in its two-bit premise, eventually leaving you with nothing to do but gawp at the colored smoke bombs and pole-vaulting lunatics out of Cirque du Soleil. Had the action of “Fury Road” involved a change of scenery, or a plan tied to a compelling narrative, Miller and company might have found a means of sustaining, or even transcending, its slam-bang kineticism. But absent an animating concept it’s hard to prevent this sort of thing from becoming enervating. By the start of the second chase sequence I was tired of being stimulated. “The Road Warrior” was a brisk 90 minutes. At two hours, “Fury Road” is a haul.
In “Fury Road” Miller has replaced the mythic mumbo jumbo of “The Road Warrior” with gender politics, and the fans of the new film seem happy to accept its nods towards meaningfulness and topicality as the stuff of great wisdom. I witnessed one fan, knocked insensate by the scale of the action, and perhaps seeking to justify his excitement, threaten to devote a “study group” to the movie, as if its profundities require a committee to be properly assayed. Give a nerd some action and he’ll cheer for an hour, make him feel smart and he’ll never shut up. I think Miller’s feminism is sincere: he really wants to say something. But though he imagines he’s condemning “toxic masculinity,” his message is at odds with his inclinations, which, where the action genre is concerned, aren’t far removed from those of a 10-year-old boy who’s just finished reading a bunch of Conan novels. The warrior culture that Miller is supposed to be critiquing dominates the movie. It’s the most vivid thing on screen, and it’s clear the director has spent years thinking about it — he’s turned on by it. (It’s worth noting that even Miller’s 1992 medical drama, “Lorenzo’s Oil,” opens with a quote from a warrior song.) We’re shown kamikaze albinos reaching for ceremonial steering wheels, like knights undertaking mystical weapons; bizarrely affecting death rituals; and male warriors vaingloriously invoking a newfangled Valhalla. In the event that Joe’s crew isn’t sufficient to overwhelm, Miller has provided competing warlords. They include a capitalist grotesque with a Tycho Brahe nose and an arms merchant who wears a barrister’s wig made from bullet casings. (The latter is eventually blinded, becoming a parody of Lady Justice — an example of Miller getting a bit too cute.) Miller reigns over this furor as Warlord in Chief; he’s bigger and badder than Immortan Joe and Lord Humongous put together. And his kingdom is a balls-out, death-or-glory testament to the trappings of macho ritual. It’s enough to make John Milius cream his cargo shorts.
Compared to the riot and kinesthesia of Joe’s minions, the story of Imperator Furiosa, a driver who attempts to rescue a group of female sex slaves from the corrupt grasp of patriarchy, is weak stuff. Though Miller might be said to have treated matriarchy in the 1985 “Beyond Thunderdome,” nothing in “Fury Road” suggests that he’s given it much thought during the intervening 30 years. Furiosa’s plan isn’t fleshed out: She intends to deliver her wards to an unfortified “green place” a day’s drive from Joe’s stronghold. (Imagine if the Hebrews had escaped Pharaoh only to camp beside the Great Pyramid.) And when that plan proves unsuccessful, she resolves to drive into the infinity of the desert, presumably to die in the throes of social justice made consummate. (Max changes her mind.) As a visual counter to the demonic mercenaries of Joe’s Citadel, we get a troupe of grannies on motorcycles. They look like…well, grannies on motorcycles. Miller, it’s clear, hasn’t bothered to figure out how women might effect a reasonably thrilling and cool-looking opposition to male domination. He reveres Feminism, but he finds it boring.
The most affecting non-action image of the movie is also its most sexist: Upon first approaching Furiosa’s war rig, Max glimpses the waif escapees bathing as a group. The moment is like an oasis in a desert of mayhem, and it affects the viewer in the same way it affects Max — we drink it in. Predictably, the scene has been criticized in some quarters as a concession to shit-lord patriarchy, but this largely sexless and humorless movie needs that bit of lyricism, that hint of femininity — it reminded me of the moment in Walsh’s “The Big Trail” when the camera discovers a group of women combing their hair in the midst of a he-man wagon train.
Maybe the scene is so welcome because it’s one of the few moments in “Fury Road” in which image and character are meaningfully united. Though Miller and co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris attempt to work up a relationship between Nicholas Hoult’s War Boy and one of the escaped pleasure girls, the dramatic beats they provide are so feeble they’re indiscernible. The characters’ love is acceptable only as an emotional deus ex machina — as a contrivance designed to justify the action. You begin to forget it even as you’re watching it. Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron as, respectively, Max and Furiosa, make for a much more affecting couple. Both actors do nice work, their eyes communicating sadness and even a degree of tenderness. As the pair slowly work towards a mutual respect, they provide the movie with its only emotional through-line.
Still, though Hardy is perhaps the most magnetic actor working in movies, his Max is too nebulous to leave much of an impression. Max Rockatansky was always more of an outline than a character. (That silly name says it all.) But he was given a stillness and a silken beauty by the young Mel Gibson, and Miller eroticized him via the lens of his fetishizing hero worship. Despite all its clamor and ingenuity, nothing in “Fury Road” has the kinky-visceral oomph of a dewy Gibson, clad in immaculate leather, stepping onto the asphalt and preening like a new Jim Morrison. Either Hardy won’t give that or Miller has withdrawn his ardor. When, on the soundtrack for “Beyond Thunderdome,” Tina Turner sang “we don’t need another hero,” perhaps we were meant to take her seriously.
- Sax has some smart thoughts on the movie.