Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mad Max – Fury Road: Fanging it across the post-apocalyptic wasteland

When it comes to the art of cinema, there is nothing more exciting than watching some mad son of a bitch put his life on the line for some crazy stunt. It's been a constant thrill, right from the beginning of film – the lunatic antics of Harry Lloyd and Buster Keaton are just as exciting now as they were 100 years ago.

Over the years, stunt masters have evolved the art of putting themselves into harm's way, and men like Yakima Canutt and Vic Armstrong did things no sane human being would do. But they did it on film, for all the world to see forever more, and that made them legends.

The rise of cheap and easy CGI has led to the loss of genuine human danger in the big spectacle movies, but there are still tonnes of great stuntmen in movies and television  - Game of Thrones, for one, continues to show a wonderful disregard for stunt people's health and safety – and there are still beautiful nutballs like Tom Cruise, who is quite willing to strap himself to the outside of a goddamn cargo plane for the thrills.

And George Miller is still making Mad Max films, somehow finding a whole new generation of mental Aussie bastards willing to jump around on vehicles travelling at insane speeds.

After a lifetime of loudly declaring Mad Max 2 to be one of the greatest films ever made, and 29 years after a trip to the Thunderdome blew my brain right out the back of Dunedin's St James movie theatre, my own expectations for the new film could not have been any higher.

The continual delays only fuelled those expectations, as the film was pushed back by financial disasters and genuine Acts Of God, but Miller and his collaborators kept at it, and eventually carved a new Mad Max film out of light, dust and velocity.

And after years and years of talk about it, suddenly there were photos of actors on the set, and then there were the remarkable trailers, which promised a whole new level of post-apocalyptic mayhem, and I didn't care about Star Wars or The Avengers or Pitch Perfect 2 or anything else any more. I just had to see this film, above all else.

Those kinds of expectations frequently sour. There have been dozens of films over the years that didn't live up to their trailers, and The Phantom Menace still holds the ultimate prize for building hope up with a terrific promotional campaign, but it was a hope that shattered under the mediocrity of the finished films.

I get pretty fucking excited about films I really want to see, but I always have to reign it in during the days leading up to see it, otherwise I can't bear the disappointment. But I couldn't help myself with a new Mad Max.
Comic legend Brendan McCarthy contributed to the look of the film, (look upon his works, and marvel), and it looked incredibly stylish and intense, and it looked and sounded like absolutely everything I loved about the art of film. How could I not be beside myself with anticipation?

And so, after seeing the film on Thursday night, I can safely say it didn't just meet those unrealistic expectations, it blew them out of the fucking water, and then ran over them multiple times with a 4WD made of buzzsaw blades.

Mad Max – Fury Road is just as good as everyone says it is. It's unrelentingly excellent, with strong and hopeful subtexts anchoring a roaring, thrashing beast of a film. It has some stunning production design, creating an extraordinary and strange post-civilisation world, and is surprisingly thoughtful, without ever belabouring the point.

It's also still proudly and shockingly Australian, with both a hard-out and hard-case mentality, and the film stands as proof that the Ocker accent is strong enough to survive the nuclear flames. Everything in Max's world is getting steadily crazier, evolving into new absurdity as the radiation of the landscape warps minds and bodies, but it's still recognisably Aussie.

It's a story that doesn't stop moving, with no room for lengthy exposition – you find out who people are by how they react and what they do when the shit goes down, with just enough dialogue to both lay down the universal themes - “we are not things!' - or get genuine laughs: the 'Mediocre!' line is the funniest in the whole series.

But even as the white-line nightmare that is Max's life spreads and overwhelms the whole  world, the film doesn't ever lose sight of the humanity amidst the whirlwinds of chaos. Tom Hardy is an ideal new Max, properly feral when pushed too far, utterly dedicated to his own survival, with just enough of the sort of charm and tenderness that Mel Gibson used peeking through.

Other than his usual transformation from selfish, crazy loner to somebody who will happily sacrifice himself for others, Fury Road is not really Max's story. It's the people he runs across in the wasteland who are the real protagonists. Charlise Theron is absolutely fantastic as Furiosa, taking her destiny into her own hands; Nicholas Hoult manages to give real life to a crazed and suicidal fanatic, and the various actresses playing the wives, who are all scared, strong survivors, are the beating heart of the story.

These actors all give the story real depth, giving whole lives to characters with efficient grace, but the best thing about the new Mad Max are those astonishing in-camera effects, and the crazy bastards who bring the mayhem to life.

They're leaping around, body-slamming each other on top of moving vehicles, with the screen roaring with veolicty and momentum. They're driving new vehicular nightmares at top speed across the brutal sands of nothingness.

Here, the art of the stunt is still alive and kicking like a rabid mule. Here, the sons of Lloyd, Keaton, Canutt and Armstrong are keeping that thrill alive, thumping their way through the movies, their antics looking grittily real in a world of CGI weightlessness.

It's been a good week for great expectations because I got the same happy thrill from the new Faith No More album - fears that it would be another half-arsed effort by asnother past-their-prime band were blown apart by Sol Invictus.

But that joy is nothing compared to the breathless beauty of a new Mad Max film, fanging it across the movie screen. Max lives in a brutal world of fire and blood, but there is still sheer art to be found out there.

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