The biggest earthquake in recorded history rocks California, amidst the dire warnings of a leading seismologist (Paul Giamatti). Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson), the biggest man in the Los Angeles Fire Department, is THE man to save the day. Buildings crumble, fissures open in the ground, but nothing will stop this man mountain from saving his family. Lots of other people die but apparently that’s not interesting.
The spectacle of San Andreas is impressive, as whole sections of cities buckle, landmarks are destroyed and judder after judder shake the audience. But the film lacks an equivalent human scale, its focus too narrow on the broken family of Ray, ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino) and daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario). Disaster movies like Titanic and The Day After Tomorrow as well as classics like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno work because they either show the wide effects of the disaster or focus on a small group of characters. San Andreas falls between these stools (or should that be continental plates) by occasionally presenting other victims of the earthquakes, but then abandons these plot lines to just focus on the Gaines. This is most glaring when Ray is on a rescue missions that he suddenly abandons to rescue Emma before both of them set off, in an LAFD helicopter, for San Francisco to get their daughter, Ray and the film apparently disregarding everyone else.
Politically, this is an unfortunate manifestation of conservative individualism – save yourself and your family – but it is also narratively aggravating because tighter plotting could have avoided it. It may seem odd to complain about the plot of a disaster movie, but action films of this type, when done carefully, often exhibit precise and efficient storytelling. But the sloppiness of Carlton Cuse’s screenplay, including the tired device of INEXORABLY RISING WATER as a climactic set piece, detracts from director Brad Peyton’s fine handling of the action sequences, including some enthralling long takes that draw the viewer through the onscreen architectural carnage. The generic clichés are perfectly fine, such as the slimy new boyfriend and the random strangers Blake bonds with in the crisis, while scenes at Cal-Tech with Lawrence (Giamatti) and a news crew are very good. Overall, however, San Andreas is let down by its shaky screenplay that could easily have been tightened up.
A suave, debonair spy holds a sinister Eastern European at gunpoint, making it clear who is in control, then sneezes because of hay fever. Meanwhile, the spy’s tech support precisely guides him through the elaborate underground complex, while the other CIA hub agents deal with a pest infestation. From these opening moments, Spy presents familiar features of the spy genre while simultaneously adding its own comedic spin to them. Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy’s third collaboration (after Bridesmaids and The Heat) is a spy action comedy that knows its genre and winks this knowingness to the audience. It takes itself seriously enough to deliver startling action sequences with genuinely nasty violence, but maintains humour to ensure that each scene delivers the laughs. The film relies, with great judgement, on McCarthy’s versatility, talent and charisma for both its dramatic and comedic impact. McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a brilliant CIA tech who is sent into the field due to her anonymity after agent identities are leaked. Cooper takes on international arms dealer Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) and her gang of thugs, while ex-master spy Rick Ford (Jason Statham) blunderingly attempts to complete the mission himself, stopping just long enough to tell Cooper of his ludicrous exploits. McCarthy commands every scene she’s in with a layered performance of ambition, frustration, creativity and determination. Whether talking her way into a casino or out of a Mexican standoff, Cooper remains sympathetic and compelling. While she is very funny, the biggest laughs of the film are often prompted by Statham, who repeatedly sends up his hard man image with preposterous stories and bungling incompetence. Strong support also come from Jude Law, Allison Janney, Miranda Hart and Peter Serafinowicz, while the script delivers fast and sophisticated gags and Feig proves himself a skilled action director, especially during a fight between Cooper and opponent Nargis Fakhri that is as gripping and wince-inducing as any scrap Paul Greengrass has delivered. As well being hilarious, intelligent and exciting, Spy is also important and, as another critic has argued, groundbreaking. Spy dares to propose that (a) it is alright to be fat because fat does not equal worthless or wretched; (b) fat jokes are not alright and need to be highlighted as such; (c) a woman does not need to be judged beautiful by others in order to feel valued; (d) a woman’s narrative need not end in romantic resolution with a man to be happy because, shockingly, there is more to life to romance! While there is much to enjoy in Spy, it is also to be applauded as a sobering reminder of the inequality of gender representation in mainstream cinema, and how far we have to go before such a film is commonplace rather than exceptional.
“My name is Mad. My world is fire,” growls Max Rockatansky’s (Tom Hardy) opening voiceover of George Miller’s return to the Mad Max franchise after thirty years. For the next two hours, the viewer encounters this fire in all its blistering, barraging, petrol-fuelled mayhem, resulting in one of the most relentless action movies of recent years. There is a dazzling beauty to Miller’s action choreography, the camera both sweeping around the pimped-up vehicles that tear through the post-apocalyptic landscape and yanking the viewer into the heart of the deafening chases and brutal encounters between flesh, metal, rock and flame. Hardy brings a world-weary indomitableness to the role of Max, leaving the dramatic thrust of the narrative to Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa. Furiosa’s arc has been the source of some controversy over the apparent feminist invasion of a “man’s film”. Frankly, more active roles for women are always something to be applauded and Furiosa makes an excellent protagonist as well as a fine foil to Max. Her altruism and his nihilism are contrasting but complementary beliefs in a fragmented and pitiless world. This balance of the genders is further reason to admire Mad Max: Fury Road, as it means the film largely avoids the sexism so depressingly familiar in action cinema. It is unlikely to herald a new dawn, but for its running time the film is a gripping and refreshing contribution to the genre.