Mad Max: Fury Road
Maybe it’s when Tom Hardy eats the two-headed lizard. Maybe it’s when the sepulchrally-painted War Boys start huffing silver spray-paint and screaming “witness me” before leaping into kamikaze attacks. Maybe it’s when the heavily-chromed double-necked guitar spouts a plume of gasoline flame while chugging out the lead of a Junkie XL-scored heavy metal symphony from the front of a massive, motorized speaker stack carrying an equally massive percussion section in back. But at some point not too far into Mad Max: Fury Road you realize that George Miller is, in fact, completely bonkers in the best possible way.
This is not a reboot, but a long-delayed continuation of Miller’s Mad Max series, thirty years after 1985’s Beyond Thunderdome. That said, don’t worry if you haven’t seen the pulpy originals; this one largely stands on its own, aside from some flashes of disturbed memory that can be easily chalked up to generic PTSD.
The story, like the others in the series, is something of a vignette about life in the post-apocalyptic desert where it’s usually every man for himself — or woman for herself, as it turns out. This one starts when the warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) sends his Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) on a supply mission to retrieve fuel from Gas Town and ammunition from the Bullet Farm, but things take a sharp left turn when she instead drives the heavily-armored War Rig out across the desert in an escape attempt for Joe’s harem of healthy “wives” (Zoë Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abby Lee, and Courtney Eaton).
Joe sends out his entire fanatical army of War Boys to retrieve his “treasures”, including one driver, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), still chained to his “blood bag”, the captured and enslaved Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy). Why the War Boys need periodic transfusions isn’t really explained in this movie, and honestly it doesn’t really matter. If you’re trying to parse the logic of a Mad Max movie, you’ve walked into completely the wrong theater. This is id-stuff: a technological primality that boils down to blood and sweat and gasoline.
Like the other entries in the series this is aimed squarely at the young male demographic, full of impacts and explosions, and placing beautiful women as a prize to be protected by strong men — even Theron’s Furiosa has had to give up her femininity along with her arm to survive under Joe’s rule. And yet, despite the hypermasculine surface, Miller inserts a distinctly feminist undercurrent. The motley crew’s escape is not merely from despotism to freedom, but from toxic, patriarchal masculinity to the semi-mythical “green place, with many mothers”. Max’s impulse towards solitude must be blunted into cooperation for the good of the whole. Even Nux’s psychotic self-destruction must give way to a valuing of life, his own included.
And yet despite the simplistic teeth-gnashing from the more regressive sectors of the audience, the story doesn’t go so far as to indict itself. It would be easy enough to reduce the story to “men bad, women good”, and in a way that’s what so many action films do by keeping their female characters on a pedestal to be fought over as mere trophies, but that’s not what happens here. Miller strikes a balance, with masculine and feminine traits both necessary for a healthy society. And they must balance in individual people too, not separately in warrior-men and breeding-women either; a woman can carry a purse full of seeds, always trying to nurture something into growth, and also be a deadly crack shot with her rifle.
And all of this vital social commentary weaves into the most spectacular blockbuster action in years. Shooting with real people and real machines in real places lends a visceral heft missing in modern CGI-fests. The editing balances this speed and impact with visual comprehensibility, and while it’s not as cleanly readable as the best cinematic car chases we still have more of a sense of how the shots fit together than most recent action movies. And the pieces slamming into each other are drawn straight from Miller’s own visionary sensibilities. It is awesome, and not to be missed.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.