Relentless. Brutal. Feministic. All these adjectives describe George Miller’s latest entry to the cherished Mad Max series, a highly entertaining and satisfying franchise if there was one.
It’s been 30 long years since Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome was released. The film has been divisive among fans, many calling it a failure. I called it the best of the series because of its character arc for our hero as well as how it paints a tragic picture of how society breaks down after an apocalypse. It was more than just an action picture, instead posing serious questions. It was challenging, and whether you loved or hated it, it was a new direction for the series. I’m happy to say that Mad Max: Fury Road carries this torch, this time with a social progress agenda.
While Fury Road undoubtedly and unashamedly is an action pic, it’s also a not so disguised work of feminist lit. This alone sets it apart from most male driven action flicks that are high on machismo but low on thoughtful depiction of women (Expendables anyone?). And like Beyond Thunderdome, it forces us to question man’s role in the destruction of the earth. As a group of escape brides ask, “Who destroyed the world?” Of course it’s the men who use violence as means to an end, even men like Max.
While the film makes the case that women are the means of rebirth and light, Miller isn’t afraid to show them as tough and resilient. Indeed, the main character of the film isn’t Max, but a tough buzzed hair warrior named Furiosa (played by a ferocious Charlize Theron), a badass woman who who has a mechanical arm. She’s a driver for Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a leader of the water colony. Early on she’s sent on a mission to get gas from gastown, but unbeknownst to Joe, is carrying his captive to be mothers of his children, one even in the last stage of pregnancy. They’re a ragtag team of male gaze beauties, fair skinned and flowing hair. But their appearances are deceiving. They’re fierce and fight for their chance to make it to the green lands, a utopia described to them by Furiosa.
You might be thinking where does Max fit into all of the us. I know that was the very question in my mind for the first half hour of the film. In the first five minutes we see Max captured by Immortan Joe’s gang of warriors. He becomes a blood donor for the gang’s sickly white skinned minions (I’m not sure their illness is is ever fully explained). Max is hung upside down as his blood slowly drains into a pale skinned freak who works as a driver. When word gets out that Furiosa and the brides have escaped, the freak chains Max to the front of his car, both connected by chains and blood. It’s a strong metaphor for how Max is connected to the chaos and destruction, a reminder of his lost humanity from the first film (as far as continuity goes, you might as well ignore Beyond Thunderdome, which saw Max regain his humanity at the end.).
Max eventually breaks free his captor and joins forces with Furioasa. They form an unlikely truce. It’s telling that Max has to point a gun at the escaped women, a pointed representation of the gender divide and how lines can be drawn in the sand. Max will come to side with the women, but like any other Mad Max film, joins the good guys with heels being dragged.
To describe the rest of the plot is pointless. Fury Road is essentially one long car chase, from beginning to end. It’s a brilliant display of how to utilize rapid cuts and hyperkinetic cinematography, as well as seamless CGI. Miller puts modern action filmmakers to shame, even more humiliating when you consider this work is coming from a 70-year-old man. Miller may be an old dog, but that doesn’t mean he can’t pull off new tricks. His film feels fresh and invigorating and reminds this jaded critic that there’s still life to the action genre, and that films can still display action in a bravado and comprehensible manner, not to mention stylish. Avengers: Age of Ultron was in the back of my mind while watching Fury Road, and I could help but reflect how much better that film could be if they had as much as thought put into them as Miller injects into his own films. But this should shouldn’t dishearten action directors. It’s should be a reminder,or a challenge, that the genre can still be interesting and thought provoking. That it can be truly deserving of being called art. Because for all the praise I can heap upon Fury Road, it is above all else a remarkable work of art.
There’s a certain poetry in the madness and carnage on display. Take for instance a surreal choice to show a pair of flamethrower-guitar wielding-psychos strapped to the hood of monstrous vehicles. The whole time I kept thinking that David Lynch would love this film. It’s a pure mark of style, that links the heavy metal coming from their strings to the chaos they bring. While it may seem like an absurd and superfluous detail, I remind you that it harkens back to the drummer on a battlefield, bringing the warning of an oncoming army.
And then there’s the viscerality of the action and crashes. There isn’t a beat that isn’t felt, nor a moment of fist pumping that isn’t earned. It helps that Miller used real vehicles for the film, and while some of the stunts were created in a computer (though there were various points where I couldn’t even tell if they were, and I’m still not sure they were), there’s still a heavy dose of jaw dropping feats that’ll leave wondering how they pulled it off.
Bottom line, Fury Road is a kick ass flick, one with a beating heart that elevates it above the woefully shallow action genre. I at first wanted to call it the best of the Mad Max series, but then I realized they’re all masterpiece in their own right. Which plainly means Mad Max: Fury Road has avoided the dreaded sequel’s curse and planted itself on the mantel as its predecessors. It will no doubt go down as one of the best films of the year. It may even be one of the best action pics in recent memory. Not that there was much competition in the first place.