‘Mad Max: Fury Road’: Fast, Thrilling, and (Yes) Feminist

The production company logos that open George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road are accompanied by the deep rumbling of a loudly revving engine — and good luck finding a more appropriate starter pistol for this movie, which is like a machine that roars at full throttle for two solid hours. Miller’s last entry in the Max franchise, which has run the gamut from grubby low-budget exploitation movie to pricey studio blockbuster, was 1985’s Beyond Thunderdome, where (in something of an artistic suicide) he saved the series’ signature motif of tricked-out post-apocalyptic vehicles roaring across the desert plain for the final 20 minutes of the movie. No such restraint is shown here. Fury Road is for all intents and purposes a 120-minute chase, where the focal vehicle must keep moving, and thus, so must the movie. But there’s more happening here than empty spectacle, which has drawn the ire of some of the Internet’s more odious commentators.

Later for them. Socio-political ramifications aside, Fury Road is, plain and simple, a bracing, sublime, towering slab of cinema, a rare thriller that actually, y’know, thrills. Fair warning: it takes some time to get going, as re-introductions and (often muddy) exposition are necessary. Tom Hardy steps into Mel Gibson’s iconic role of Max Rockatansky, haunted by voices and nightmare visions, captured and kidnapped into a terrifying dystopia ruled by the tyrannical Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne — yes, the same Hugh Keays-Byrne who played The Toecutter in the original film, which is a lovely Easter egg for longtime fans). Max is kept alive merely as a “blood bag” for Nux (an unrecognizable Nicholas Hoult), one of the many bees of Joe’s horror hive, sent across the desert on a supply mission. Leading that charge is Imperator Furiosa (a grease-browed Charlize Theron), who suddenly changes course and sets off the pursuit.

These opening scenes are the rockiest; Miller struggles a bit with his tone, the storytelling is heavy on the gibberish, and the first chase, while technically dazzling, isn’t all that involving. (The general murkiness of the early scenes is done no favors by the inevitable darkening of 3D projection; do yourself a favor and seek it out in 2D, the filmmaker’s preference.) For this viewer, the movie doesn’t come alive until the action scene that follows: a rough-and-tumble bit of hand-to-hand combat between Max, Nux, Furiousa, and her precious cargo: the “Five Wives” of Big Bad Joe (played by Zoë Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, and Courtney Eaton). It’s a sequence of intense ingenuity and constantly shifting power dynamics, and it brings the picture to life for one simple reason: first we were just looking at machines, but now we’re looking at people. And understanding those people makes the subsequent scenes of their machines matter more.

Still image from "Mad Max: Fury Road"

Yet that’s not all that makes Miller’s work as an action director so stunning, and what separates him from the monotonous bigger-louder-faster likes of Michael Bay or the Furious artiste of your choice. It’s that he understands, and employs in his set pieces, such inchoate yet frequently absent principles as geography, rhythm, and tempo. Much has been made of the ferocity of the editing — 2700 cuts, per the filmmaker. But it doesn’t feel as choppy and discombobulated as, say, a Transformers movie, because those films seem cut to disorient while creating the impression of speed and excitement, while Miller (and his editor, and wife, Margaret Sixel) situate the viewer within the sequence to create actual speed and excitement. And, even more revolutionarily, they vary that speed throughout the picture, shifting gears like the drivers of those big rigs, which goes a long way towards keeping viewers from feeling like they’ve been bashed in the head with a fucking hammer for 120-plus minutes. (It doesn’t hurt that he’s also more inclined towards practical effects than computer-generated ones, which gives the action far more weight and heft than the collections of 1s and 0s that pass for stunts nowadays.)

As Fury Road geared up for its magnificent climax, I was reminded of a Quentin Tarantino interview where he recalls seeing John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow II for the first time, with a friend who turned to him at about the same point and posited, “If they don’t get naked and boogie at the end of this movie, this has been for nothing.” Have no fear — Miller gets naked and boogies. That final chase is, quite simply, one for the books, a dazzling delirium of dust and fire and sheer kinetic force. Miller zips his camera, pulls out his sound, wails his punches, and bangs and fuses his shots up against each other like a welder. It is bonkers, and it is brilliant.

And here we are, nearly 700 words in, and I’ve barely mentioned the people that populate this film — which says more about the elegance of the style than the purveyors of its substance. Hardy is, unsurprisingly, a perfect Max, easily sliding into the wandering gunslinger archetype (lest we forget, he was introduced in Thunderdome as “the man with no name”), his two or three moments of fleeting humor and/or humanity shrewdly parsed out over the narrative. He is, as usual, a man who does more than he says; Miller regards him in much the same manner. (There’s a wonderful bit where he doesn’t even bother to follow Max away from the group on a solo sidebar — he merely regards his condition as he leaves, and as he returns.)

Tom Hardy in "Mad Max: Fury Road"

He’s great, and the title’s the title, but this is unquestionably Theron’s movie. She works with authority, fights like a badass, thinks on her feet, and generally wrecks shop, and if you can make it through the scene where she hoists a rifle onto Max’s shoulder, takes careful aim at an approaching vehicle, and growls “Don’t breathe” and not burst into applause, well, you’re made of stronger stuff than I. But when she lets out her howl of rage and grief at what should be the culmination of a physical and emotional odyssey, it becomes clear that she’s the character at the picture’s center. She’s the one who takes the risk, and who takes the journey; that’s the way these movies work. Max took his the first time out, and serves as an aide and/or inspiration in subsequent installments.

Much of the advance word on the movie, even before its Men’s Rights Activist “boycott,” held that her character and story gave the film a decidedly feminist bent, but this isn’t a case of half-hearted “female stuff” or the current vogue of “…but with ladies” repurposing. The Eve Ensler consulting hire actually makes sense in the context of the movie; this is a story of survivors of sexual violence, fighting back and reclaiming themselves. That they are first revealed in a vaguely eroticized bit with a water hose is a clever bait-and-switch on Miller’s part, and a sly acknowledgment of the way (as writer Matthew Monagle notes) exploitation filmmakers have, from the Corman era forward, smuggled progressive messages into their genre sheep’s clothing.

And to that specific point, charge-leading MRA garbage person Aaron Clarey is right when he accuses Miller of using the Max franchise and action cinema in general as a “Trojan Horse” for a feminist message, though he’s wrong about absolutely everything around that point (his insistence that the Australian-made Max films are “American culture” and his declaration that “nobody barks orders at Mad Max” seem to imply that he’s never actually seen a Mad Max film, and his Chicken Littling about how “feminism has infiltrated and co-opted Hollywood” seems to imply that he’s never actually seen a movie, period). Make no mistake: via this smashing, thrilling, crowd-pleasing studio summer blockbuster, a decidedly pro-woman, pro-victim, pro-empowerment message will reach an audience that might not’ve gone looking for it. And that, friends, is even more delightful than a movie that pisses off a bunch of knuckle-dragging, retrograde, retroactive, mouth-breathing MRAs.