Saturday, 23 May 2015

Roads of Fury

I'll admit that when I first heard of Mad Max fury road I was somewhat skeptical of its quality. It also seemed to be quite a bit different from the first three Mad Max films, though those films were quite a bit different in themselves. I never fully understood the appeal of Mad Max (though I have been informed that I may have been watching the version that dubbed over the Australian accents). Mad Max: The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome both still proved to be entertaining movies. It did seem a bit odd that they chose someone other than Mel Gibson to take on the title role, but as more information became available I gradually started to warm up to it, especially when I found out just after its release that it was being directed by the same person behind the last three films.

Continuing on with the post-apocalyptic theme of the previous two Mad Max films, Fury Road puts us right back in the chaotic world where Max (now played by Tom Hardy) is just trying to survive despite constant physical and psychological torment from everything around him. He happens to be kidnapped by the servants of warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) whose face, similar to the villain of The Road Warrior, is always concealed behind a mask that makes it hard to understand what he is saying (not that it matters much). Immortan Joe happens to run an empire of sorts, controlling the local people by withholding a large supply of water.

After a somewhat disorienting and chaotic first 20 or thirty minutes during which Max has to wear a strange mask, he gets mixed up with Imperiator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a mysterious one-armed woman trying to help Joe's wives escape and take them to a better life. This group of characters soon finds themselves stuck in a "war rig" on the run from Immortan Joe, with his henchmen Nux (Nicholas Hoult) also getting stuck with them. Tension mounts as the unlikely heroes find themselves forced to work together and make a stand against their relentless pursuer.

One thing that helped to win me over when I first saw the trailers was the presence of Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa. She seemed like she had potential to be a strong female character and that seemed somewhat refreshing. After all, the Mad Max series is not exactly known for its strong female leads. In Mad Max the only female character of note was the title character's wife, who served mainly as a motivation for him with her death. The closest person to a strong female lead in The Road Warrior didn't even get a name, simply being credited as "Warrior Woman". There was also Tina Turner, but she didn't get involved until Beyond Thunderdome. Seeing a strong female character taking center stage was a nice change, and they delivered with Furiosa.

The funny thing is that they may have gone above and beyond on that front; to the point where Max ends up being more of a supporting role and the story ends up being more about her, as well as the group of heroes being predominantly female in an unusual move for this kind of film. That's not to say that the film is perfect in this regard. The supporting cast includes Immortan Joe's wives and later in the film a group of women from Furiosa's past, and I did find a lot of these characters were noticeably underdeveloped. All of them were enjoyable and competent women who got to take part in the action scenes at some point but aside from Furiosa they never seemed to get anything that distinguished them individually.

In fact, there is a distinct feminist message here that was not as clearly present in the first three Mad Max films. The title is somewhat misleading as it implies the film is about Max, which is arguably true of the first three installments. This time around, Max is more of a supporting role (though the opening makes it look like he is going to be the central character). From the trailers, one would think that this follows a similar pattern to The Road Warrior or Beyond Thunderdome where Max finds himself becoming the only hope of getting Furiosa where she needs to be. It's actually the other way around: she is the real protagonist, and Max is more like her sidekick. If anything, Furiosa is the one taking charge, Max is just her backup.

From the moment we first encounter the wives of Immortan Joe, it becomes clear that they are more than just objects (there's even an emphasis on the women freeing themselves, using what looks like an extremely heavy pair of pliers to remove their chains while Max still looks like a prisoner for some time after). Really, the dynamic of the film seems to be more about the predominantly female cast and their two male companions coming to recognize each other as equals. This is emphasized by the fact that Immortan Joe's army is made up almost exclusively of men who look like skinny versions of the Engineers from Prometheus, and that the women Furiosa seeks to protect (note that it's another woman protecting them, Max is just helping her) are explicitly identified by Joe to be good only for reproductive purposes. Immortan Joe is the embodiment of patriarchal society, and taking him out makes way for a new world in which men and women are equal.

Another area I can give credit to Fury Road for is in its production design. The landscapes have changed but the general aesthetic is very true to Miller's previous three installments, especially evident in the vehicles. Much like before this is a world in which people kill each other for fuel, and Fury Road definitely retains the bizarre-looking trucks and motorcycles that defined the previous installments. For that matter even the plot makes perfect sense: it's a road movie. How is it that an entire franchise based around people trying to survive on the road never thought to center its story on a road trip until now?

My final verdict is that Mad Max: Fury Road is a surprisingly worthy addition to the series. It has its flaws, I won't deny that, but it's a compelling story with some amazing action and a few interesting characters. It certainly brings some new elements to the series while also retaining a lot of what defined its predecessors. There is also plenty of tense and exciting action within a compelling world. It is definitely worth watching, and I would recommend checking it out.

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