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Mad Max: Fury Road's greatest achievement is being a reminder of what movies can be. They can be imaginative, magical, inventive, boundless and joyful. They can be the canvas for artists with a passion and vision that spills out of their heads onto the silver screen because there's no other canvas big and kinetic enough to contain them. I'm not saying Fury Road is perfect, but it sure is batshit insane fun. That's partially because it's so singular and original, and partially because of writer-director George Miller's balls and determination. This man is supposed to make movies.
Fury Road reminded me of Buster Keaton. Keaton was a silent-screen master, a guy who took to the silver screen with the intention of seeing how far he could push it, to find out what he could do. Almost 100 years ago, his shorts and features were witty and clever, and full of inventions and ideas that stretched the boundaries of reality and convention. He put his life at risk and engineered death-defying gags simply because he took his job as an entertainer seriously. And he respected his audience enough to know they deserved the best he could come up with. (Watch Sherlock, Jr. on Netflix right now, then watch Steamboat Bill, Jr., and go to Youtube for The Goat, Cops and the Haunted House, then thank me with a twelve pack of Schlitz.)
Miller does with Fury Road what Keaton did in black-and-white. He does his damndest to entertain you, and for him that means pushing and pushing to keep topping himself. Mad Max says fuck you to the same old shit that's been shoveled down our throat. This movie is enough to make someone question why they've settled for so much less, so much derivation and formula. Why the fuck have we let assholes with nothing new to say keep selling us slight variations on men in leotards? Why have we let them dole out the fun in such tiny, coldly-calculated morsels? Fury Road gives its all, like there is nothing more this movie could be.
Within two minutes, Fury Road shows almost all the backstory you need. Max (Tom Hardy) is nuts and desperate, the world is a toxic wasteland, and he's being chased. For the next two hours, he keeps being chased. Well, first he is strapped to the grill of a rat rod with his blood transfusing to its War Boy driver. But, soon enough he becomes entangled with Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) who is trying to smuggle five slave brides away from Warlord Immortan Joe. Joe is a fragile, old bastard whose lesioned skin requires talcum baths and protective armor. He has fed his people a line of horseshit about immortality and salvation. He controls the scarce materials: gas, bullets and water.
Furiosa is probably a badder ass than Max. She's only got one arm but more guns than a rich redneck. She can drive a big rig, too. She wants to spirit the slave brides away to something called the Green Place, far from the endless, lifeless landscape.
Furiosa and Max are chased across the desert, over wet salt flats and through craggy canyons first by Joe and his War Boys, then by other Warlords and nomads, in lowered cars festooned like porcupines, bikes, more trucks, a 1959 Cadillac grafted onto another 1959 Caddy, a Dodge with tank treads, a truck that is nothing more than drummers, stacks of amps and blind man hammering on a flamethrowing guitar, polecats who swing from thirty-foot poles mounted to rat rods, and a Jaguar saloon hopped up like a monster truck. Eventually, the heroes are helped along by an aging band of female bikers who alternate maternal and killer instincts. They're like my grandmother, except wielding guns instead of wheat germ.
Shit explodes, people die, shots are fired and cars are destroyed. That's expected. Hell, I expect all of that at Walmart on Thanksgiving Day. What is unexpected is the pure joy of the demolition . That exhilaration makes all the difference. Mad Max: Fury Road isn't steeping itself in bullshit mythologies. It doesn't take itself seriously. It's made like the hot rods on the screen: stripped down, muscular and fast. When shit blows up, it's for the joy of seeing shit blow up, not to further some marketing campaign or tie-in with McDonald's.
Joy is also why Fury Road can get away with naming characters Furiosa, Rictus Erectus and Immortan. Or places like Green Place, Bullet Farm and Gas Town. It's why it can have a blind man on bungees providing guitar licks. That shit is goofy, but the movie knows that. Don't take it home and repeat the names and lend them so much historic importance they become infallible parts of some make-believe canon. They are silly names in a silly, violent, thrilling movie.
Miller doesn't waste much time on dialog. Max speaks little, Furiosa says not much more. But the movie's details show us all that is needed. It's in a War Boy's eagerness to please, the willingness of a woman to put her pregnant belly in the path of a bullet, the screaming children only Max can see. There is a strong theme, but it's there to string the action, not to make some dumbass screenwriter feel like he's writing Shakespeare.
There's exhilaration in seeing action happen unfettered and being wiped from the screen as fast it arrives. Miller doesn't need to stop and admire his own work. He's too busy moving on to a character ripping the bullet he uses as a tooth from his mouth so he can fire it. Not only is the action more nuts than what's come before, it's also filmed clearly and precisely. None of these shitty quick cuts and grimy blurs as bodies collide, letting some CGI whiz off the hook for what he can't do. No, the audience sees it all, choreographed like the bloodiest Swan Lake ever.
I keep hearing people refer to this movie as a feminist manifesto. It's true that it contains women being treated badly by old and greasy men, but that's also true in Vegas and most downtown tapas bars. It's also true that Furiosa's balls are as big as Max's, and she barely needs his help. But so what? I guess I'm not sure why feminism is an issue, because I don't hear people mention that every other film is chauvinist. Except for the Norwegian ones about lesbian teens. Yes, Mad Max has women who kick ass, emphasis on kicking and ass. If that bothers you, the problem isn't the movie.
Like I said, Fury Road isn't perfect, but it moves so damn fast it's hard to pin down why. And after seeing it twice and thinking about it for a day, I'm not sure it matters. It's just fucking brilliant, and it will continue to be until the fanboys get hold of it and mummify it with overanalysis and a need to make it about themselves. Five Fingers. Now, go watch some Buster Keaton, and also George Miller's other masterpiece, Babe: Pig in the City.