Mad Max Fury Road – One Of The Greatest Action Movies Ever

I re-watched the original “Mad Max” just before I checked this sequel out, and I was amazed at what spectacular stunts director George Miller was able to pull off on a budget of less than $1 million. Even today, the 1979 movie is exhilarating to watch as Max Rockatansky lays waste to the gang of bikers who coldly and viciously murdered his wife and son. After watching it, I had to wonder what Miller could do with an even bigger budget. Of course, we all came to see exactly what he could with the next two “Mad Max” movies as well as with his segment of “Twilight Zone: The Movie,” “Happy Feet” and the highly underrated “Babe: Pig in the City.”

But all of his previous works came close to completely paling in comparison to “Mad Max: Fury Road,” the first “Mad Max” movie in 30 years, which had Miller working with a reported budget of $150 million and giving us the kind of action movie which effectively redefines the words thrilling, exhilaration, non-stop and spectacle. It’s as furious as movies get, and the real lack of CGI effects makes the action feel all the more wonderfully brutal. For a follow-up which got stuck in development hell for what seemed like an eternity, it was well worth the wait.

There’s a bit of confusion as to whether “Fury Road” is meant to be a franchise reboot or a sequel, but even with Tom Hardy taking over the role made famous by Mel Gibson, I’m just going to consider this a straightforward sequel. And like many of the best sequels, this one does not require you to have seen the previous three movies to understand all of what is going on.

Once again, Max travels the wretched wasteland of planet Earth in his car equipped with the kind of horsepower we would love to convince others we have under the hoods of our own cars, and it doesn’t take him long at all to get captured by people who have long since been driven mad by the desecration and lawlessness surrounding them. Max ends up being brought to a place called the Citadel which is ruled over by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his army of War Boys. Max eventually escapes (it wouldn’t be much of a movie if he didn’t) and comes into contact with Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a hardened warrior who drives a heavily armed truck known as the War Rig. It is eventually revealed that Furiosa has absconded with Joe’s Five Wives, women selected for the purpose of breeding, and Joe will stop at nothing to retrieve what is now considered Earth’s most valuable property: no oil, not water, but human bodies.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” wastes no time in putting the pedal to metal as it is essentially one long chase movie which never lets up. The plot is fairly thin, but it’s still thick enough to support the tremendous action sequences which involve some of the craziest stunts and crashes this side of a John Woo or a James Cameron film. Seeing real cars actually crash and get demolished provides us with the visceral thrills I don’t get enough of at the local cinema these days. The fact Miller was able to give us such an amazing spectacle even at the age of 70 more than raises the bar for the next generation of filmmakers who have a lot of catching up to do.

I do have to admit I’m a little bummed Gibson didn’t return to play Max. It’s certainly not hard to understand why he was absent this time around, but coming back to play the role which made him a worldwide star would have been the icing on the cake for “Fury Road.” Having said that, Hardy does a terrific job of making this iconic role his own, and he proves to be furiously mad in his own crazy way.

But seriously, “Mad Max: Fury Road” really belongs to Charlize Theron who steals the show as Imperator Furiosa. There should be no doubt as to how phenomenal an actress Theron is as she has given us amazing performances in “Monster” (and no, the makeup did not do the work for her), “North Country” and “Young Adult” and she deserves far more credit than she typically gets. Her toughened up performance as Furiosa brings to mind Sigourney Weaver’s in “Aliens” as she dominates the special effects in a way few actors get the chance to do.

When it was released, many said “Fury Road” had a strong feminist angle to it, and they said this as if it were a bad thing. Then again, those who urged us to boycott this movie for that reason still have not bothered to watch it, so their hypocrisy remains as infinite as ever. What they need to understand is women cannot and should no longer be considered the weaker sex. The fact is they never were.

I also liked how Miller brought back Hugh Keays-Byrne to play Immortan Joe here as he is the same actor who portrayed Toecutter, the villain of the original “Mad Max.” Byrne ends up having to wear this scary looking mask throughout “Fury Road,” so his eyes and his voice do most of the acting for him. But even with these given limitations, Byrne gives us a very threatening and mesmerizing antagonist who is bent on dominating anyone and everyone who has the misfortune of being in his path.

And let’s not forget Nicholas Hoult who plays Nux, the sick war boy who comes to discover what really matters to him in such a desolate world. It’s been fun watching him go from his early days as a child actor in “About a Boy” to where he is presently, and it has been a voyage full of memorable performances. As Nux, he looks to be having the time of his life as he shouts out loud, “Oh what a glorious day!” His energy never lets up from start to finish, and he succeeds in making us care about Nux even though he is not entirely trustworthy when we first meet him.

There are many images here which have stayed with me long after I first saw it on the silver screen. The design of the cars the characters roam the desert in, the Darth Vader-like mask Immortan Joe wears, those guys hanging tightly to totem poles as the vehicles they are tied to travel at breakneck speeds, and, of course, the travelling guitarist known as the Doof Warrior (iOTA) who plays his instrument and shoots fire out of it with reckless abandon. All of this amazing imagery is done to the thunderous score composed by Thomas Holkenborg (a.k.a. Junkie XL) which proves to be as furious as the onscreen spectacle.

It has now been five years since “Mad Max: Fury Road” was first released, and there should be no doubt that it is one of the best action movies ever made. Time has not taken away from the pure adrenaline rush Miller provides us here, nor does the frustration of him losing the Best Director Academy Award to Alejandro G. Iñárritu who won instead for “The Revenant.” For an action movie, this one is a real work of art.

Seriously, there is something to be said for a movie which brought cinematographer John Seale out of retirement to work on it.

* * * * out of * * * *

The Neon Demon

The Neon Demon poster

This is a motion picture you will either be on the same wavelength or not. That’s usually the case with any Nicolas Winding Refn film whether it’s “Bronson,” “Drive” or “Only God Forgives,” but I imagine “The Neon Demon” will be his most divisive movie yet. As for myself, I was entranced with this movie from start to finish as it combines the visual aesthetics of a Gaspar Noe film with the dreaminess of a David Lynch one, and those elements come together to form something that is uniquely Refn. In a sea of movies out right now which feel largely underwhelming, “The Neon Demon” is a refreshing one with its undeniably strong visuals, and that’s even though it takes a very sharp left turn in the last half.

We are introduced to Jesse (Elle Fanning), an aspiring model looking to get into the Los Angeles modelling scene. Equipped with some striking pictures shot by her friend Dean (Karl Glusman), she succeeds in getting signed with top Hollywood agent Roberta Hoffman (Christina Hendricks) who encourages Jesse to lie about her age and is quick to dismiss other aspiring talents coldly and without a second thought. Soon Jesse comes to befriend makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) who introduces her to the kinky club scene as well as a pair of models, Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), who are ruthless in their intent to stay relevant in an industry quick to chew them up and spit them out.

Essentially, “The Neon Demon” is Jesse’s descent into the hellish and shallow world of modelling as she becomes the envy of photographers and fashion designers in the industry and creates a cauldron of resentment for those who can only dream of having her natural beauty. That’s the thing; Jesse has a look that feels infinitely real compared to other models who have long since resorted to plastic surgery which has made them look like lifeless statues. How does a novice model make her way through such a cutthroat and friendless realm of existence? Well, Refn is not out to give us the definitive answer to that question, but the journey he takes us on gives us kind of an idea of what it could be like.

I loved the beautiful and yet clinical look Refn gives “The Neon Demon” as it is entrancing and immersive. We are sucked into a world that is not healthy for us, but we can’t turn away from it as, like Pandora’s Box, we have an insatiable desire to see what is inside. Colors abound as if he tried to combine the beautiful images from Noe’s and Dario Argento’s films (“Suspiria” in particular) and turn them into something original. This movie also benefits largely from the beautiful electronic score composed by Cliff Martinez which hugs these images while poking at the darkness lying beneath them.

Elle Fanning has long since distinguished herself from her equally famous sister Dakota, and her role here as Jesse is her most daring yet. Some will complain that all she does in “The Neon Demon” is just sit around and look beautiful, but that’s missing the point. What’s utterly fascinating about Elle’s portrayal is how she takes Jesse from being a seemingly innocent rookie in a business that can be quite cruel to someone who fiercely owns her beauty in a way that is as seamless as it is haunting. This is not a dialogue heavy movie, so Elle has to show this transition without words for the most part and she succeeds to where we cannot help but be horrified about what Jesse will become.

However, Elle is almost upstaged by Jena Malone who combines an earthly look with an almost alien one as makeup artist Ruby. Malone has always been a tremendous actress, and she makes Ruby a wondrous enigma of sorts as she reveals only so much about her character on the surface. As the movie goes on, Malone comes to exhibit a strong vulnerability as Ruby is denied the thing she desires most and ends up acting out in sheer desperation. Malone is riveting and fearless, and she shows no hesitation in embracing Ruby’s dark side.

Abbey Lee deserves credit for bringing unexpected depth to Sarah, a model slowly realizing she is now past her prime, as she sinks into a swamp of infinite envy and resentment. I liked how Bella Heathcote makes Gigi into a model who is unapologetic about the sacrifices she has made for her career and is fiercely defensive of her place in the industry. While Glusman doesn’t get to show a lot of range here as Dean, he does have some nice moments as a man trying to hold strong to his ideals of what real beauty should be. And even Keanu Reeves shows up as Jesse’s unsavory apartment manager Hank, a man John Wick would show no hesitation to beating the crap out of. Say what you will about Reeves’ acting skills; he’s much better here than he was in Eli Roth’s “Knock Knock.”

If there was anything that perplexed me the most about “The Neon Demon,” it was the last half where it suddenly turns into a Grand Guignol horror film. It’s like the movie suddenly turned into something completely different as we find the women in Jesse’s life determined to possess her natural beauty any way they can, and I mean any way. Granted, this is a Refn film so you have to expect the unexpected, but it bears repeating here as things take a direction that almost seems out of whack with what came before.

Many will keep trying to get answers from Refn in regards to the questions “The Neon Demon” casually leaves unanswered. Then again, this is not a movie designed to have easily answered questions as the viewer will have to use their own imaginations to decipher what they have just seen. The movie’s title alludes to an antagonist that can take on a variety of forms that even the real world can’t separate itself from. Or maybe it’s the one deep fear we have to conquer before moving on with life. Whatever the case, “The Neon Demon” in not a movie to be easily dismissed or forgotten. People will either like it or hate it, and I am not afraid to say that I liked it a lot.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.