THE RUNNING MAX BLUES
Growing up a teenager pre-internet, and largely pre-cable, I survived on video tapes for my films. And there were a couple I wore out – double bills I’d made from source tapes, four films: BLADE RUNNER, THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI ACROSS THE EIGHTH DIMENSION, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and MAD MAX. Those were the movies that propelled me through high school, over and over again. Except for BANZAI, I don’t think I’ve seen any of the others in 10+ yeas, but they still resonate in my brain, lines come out unbidden for no reason, and I’m still wary the world will end in madness. “Death and destruction, and don’t forget the chaos!”, as the Exploited song goes. At a convention at the old Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, I met Vernon Wells from MAD MAX 2 aka THE ROAD WARRIOR and had his autographed picture on my wall – “You can run, but you cannot hide!” I don’t remember seeing any of these films in the theatre except BANZAI at a sneak preview, these were all intimate, home experiences. I don’t even remember seeing MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME in the theatre. Max Rockatansky has always been someone I’ve invited into my home.
But last weekend, opening weekend, for MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, I not only saw Max in the theatre, I saw him at the drive-in. I suppose there is nothing more primal than watching a film about cars while in the car, even if your car looks not nearly as outré or outlandish as anything George Miller and his design team’s minds. As the MAX films have progressed, the distaff fetishism of the initial film, “the last of the V-8s”, has gone from an interesting side bar to almost literally vehicular porn, to use an overworked metaphor. It’s true though, as Miller’s camera lovingly prowls over gear shifts, gas pedals, and all the accents attached to the vehicles. We have an altar to the steering wheel near the beginning of the film, where the servants of Immortan Joe must pray before they receive their steering wheel and engage in vehicular mayhem. It’s a heady, grandiose dream that Miller creates here. Despite the flash-bang-wow of the vehicles and the costuming, Miller has consistently brought his apocalyptic outback to life, the immediate ruin of the world of the original MAX, the gladiatorial glam of THUNDERDOME, and to a lesser degree, the cultish world of the Citadel in FURY ROAD. It seems perhaps a little more paint by number now than in the earlier films, but is that the passage of time and so many apocalyptic films under our viewing belts? The familial engineering with its tubes and albinos is reminiscent of L.Q. Jones’ A BOY AND HIS DOG, the religiosity almost a direct page/dig from LEFT BEHIND with its promise of a new life for the true believe. “I live, I die. I live again!”
Tom Hardy does an interesting take on Rockatansky. To my mind, he actually does better in the first third of the film when he’s buried behind a half-mask then in the later sections once he has been freed. He lets his eyes do the acting, rolling them and marking his passions well, with a hushed mumbled patter that’s much more affecting than the deadpan face and growl he uses afterwards. He doesn’t make you forget Mel Gibson, but he’s no Roger Moore either, and brings a different, more muscular side to Max. And yet he is missing some of the intelligence that marked Gibson’s performance, mistaking belligerence for pathos. Even more than ROAD WARRIOR or THUNDERDOME, this MAX movie isn’t primarily about Max, it’s about Furiosa, as played by the shaven-headed Charlize Theron. In that sense, it is an inversion echo of ROAD WARRIOR, with Virginia Hey’s unnamed Warrior Woman as the main character rather than Max. Even more, Rockatansky is Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, wandering in, declaiming a few important lines, but ultimately not the star. He is catalyst, but not hero. Furiosa is the hero. Once you have accepted this, it’s easy to roll with the cast of oddities and extremes. Miller again creates a world full of the strange, and the stranger, from Immortan Joe played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, the Toe-Cutter form the original MAD MAX, a character more akin to Humongous from ROAD WARRIOR than any other MAX villain. Much like the vehicle design, the character design, the costuming, is fascinating. While wild and unwieldy, Miller paints enough of the society of the Citadel to make the choices realistic within their context, natural extensions of this place. The closest I can think of in science fiction would be David Lynch’s DUNE, in an entirely different vein, but totally, aesthetically, branded to the world created by the director.
One of the things I had forgotten about Miller’s film-making was his use of sped up film as an effect. As Max uses a file to try and remove the mask bolted to his face, the frenzied actions work perfectly with the sped up, jittery film. Mad Max is mad indeed. It’s the best use of the effect in the film. Miller doesn’t necessarily innovate on what he’s done in MAX films prior, but instead amps it up, the cars are larger, stranger, the tanker has more trap doors and hidden places, the violence is more brutal, and lasts longer, the imagery is faster and uglier. The movie will give you whiplash as you bounce on and off vehicles, a human pinball with the characters, battered by the heavy metal band travelling with you across the desert. Literally. Much like Dario Argento’s use in TENEBRAE, here the incidental music is not so incidental after all. Perhaps it is the minimal use of CGI, but the world of Max and Furiosa comes across more real than many other recent films. The sand storm that engulfs the characters here has a real heft to it, not like, for instance Stephen Sommers’ THE MUMMY and its sequels, which seems patently false. There is weight to these effects.
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is far from perfect. As much as I admired the character and vehicle designs, they don’t take the place of real character development, which ultimately was lacking. I think I was able to subvert some of that on viewing it because of the awesome design, my brain registering design as character, but too much of the trappings didn’t hold up for me. Again, the main underlying machination for the story appears as nothing more than an inversion of A BOY AND HIS DOG and seems less interesting than the tactile need for water and gasoline which consumes the earlier MAX films. Indeed, those items appear to be in rich abundance in this film, the Citadel on its great fount of water. The primal survival or death has been taken over by the no less primal need to reproduce, but is almost too esoteric in its birthing rooms and the unbearably perfect wives who are trying to escape Immortan Joe. It rings shallow ultimately, even the attempts at pathos that Miller tries, “I have a brother,” should be galling and painful and exhausting emotionally, and instead it’s merely a hollow shout.
Should you go see FURY ROAD? It’s still an amazing spectacle of apocalyptic science fiction, and a real spectacle in an age where that word has come to mean so little. Less than nada. This is grandiose film-making. It’s a juggernaut of primal action. If that’s what you want, then sit down and enjoy. I just wish that Rockatansky’s world was more than just a patina to the action in this film.