Throughout the press tour for Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller frequently parroted something Hitchcock had said about his desire to make movies so visually clear that the Japanese could enjoy them without subtitles. They could probably enjoy this one on mute. In the post-apocalyptic Australian outback sound seems almost superfluous. It isn’t that you can’t hear anything; the engines never stop rumbling, the desert sand never stops hissing, and there’s a skull-faced dude strapped to a truckload of amps, riding into battle spewing riffs and plumes of flame from a double-necked guitar with complementary flamethrower. But constant, cacophonous noise is no different to silence. It doesn’t mean anything, and Fury Road doesn’t really care about it. It only cares about furious forward momentum; never stopping, never slowing down, barely even relenting. The closest this movie comes to a plot twist is everyone doing a U-turn and heading back in the direction they came, only faster.
At some point between 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and the germ of Fury Road wriggling into 70-year-old Miller’s nitro-boosted imagination, Hollywood made its own sharp change of direction – away from the Australian director’s handmade practical stunts, and towards the cheaper, safer CGI we see so much of in the movies today. Miller and Max Rockatansky didn’t follow the industry, instead disappearing into their own wasteland. While they were away, the events of 9/11 ran roughshod over the U.S. dollar, and Mel Gibson, who had played Max in the first three movies, noisily self-destructed. Fury Road took fifteen years to make. You can see why.
Now it’s here though, both a decade and half too late and right on time. Sure, it would have been nice to see it when the original trilogy of Miller’s automotive warfare classics wasn’t so shrouded by the lingering fallout of Gibson’s implosion. But you could easily argue things are better this way. The action galaxy hasn’t seen a genre-redefining corrective like this since Lana and Lily Wachowski gave us The Matrix in 1999. A whole generation of moviegoers haven’t seen anything remotely like Fury Road before, and they likely won’t again for quite some time. Miller’s probably heading back into the dunes regardless. With any luck, this time Hollywood will follow him.
As for Max, he’s being followed already, hounded across the desert by a gang of chalk-skinned mutant cultists known as War Boys. Max has grown a fearsome messianic beard and Tom Hardy’s playing him this time, but he’s much the same guy as he always was; laconic, guilt-ridden, grief-stricken and trying, for the fourth time now, to just be alone with his two-headed lizard lunch and his Thunderdome flashbacks. The War Boys, though, paint-huffing zealots that they are, want to siphon Max’s blood into their own suffering veins, so they find a particularly Road Warrior-inspired way to attach him – literally, with a chain and a blood-transfusion tube – to the ensuing chaos. Hardy brings something to Max that Gibson never did, a silent eye-roaming expressiveness. It’s just as well, really. This isn’t a character that’s known for being chatty. Hardy only gets to lend his typically-questionable Australian accent to a handful of grumbled lines, and none of them are particularly noteworthy. Max says more when he’s not talking than when he is, which is becoming a theme of Hardy’s career and the characters he chooses to play. It hasn’t been this obvious about it before, but Mad Max as a series has always been less about Max himself than the people he becomes responsible for. Fury Road demotes him to a grunting hood ornament for most of its first act, which is a brave way of reintroducing a hero to a story which is ostensibly about him.
I say “ostensibly” because as it turns out, Fury Road isn’t really about Max at all, but instead a one-armed, grease-painted Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa, a co-protagonist with more to say and more to do. Furiosa is a general of Immortal Joe, the death-metal baron of a parched desert city, whose stranglehold over the local water supply earns him and his hybrid religion – equal parts car culture and repurposed Norse mythology – the slavish devotion of the War Boys. Max, still functioning as a human blood bank, is bolted to the front of an armoured vehicle driven by Nicholas Hoult, which is in turn part of a convoy led by Furiosa in Joe’s “war rig”, a huge and hilariously phallic 18-wheeled tanker truck in which she’s hidden a quintet of women liberated from Joe’s harem of “breeding wives” – including the pregnant Splendid (Rosie Huntington-Whitely) and the splendidly-named Toast the Knowing (Zoe Kravitz).
The ensuing chase scene as Furiosa bails from a routine supply run and makes off with both Joe’s rig and his sex slaves is as wonderfully insane as the trailers suggested it would be; a master class in hyperkinetic action cinematography. I’ve said time and time again that all I want from an action scene is to be able to keep track of bodies and vehicles; Fury Road, thanks to the pinpoint-precision and crystal-clarity of Margaret Sixel’s editing, manages that throughout a 100mph demolition derby. It’s a breathtaking sequence, wrapped in the fiery revolutions of an angry sandstorm, and the only better one that year was an hour later, when men on pliable rods affixed to speeding armoured cars started lobbing grenades at the war rig, now being alternately driven by Furiosa, Max himself and Hoult’s morally-conscious War Boy, Nux.
Fury Road is two hours long. At first it seems like Miller (who co-wrote the script with Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris) is just using that time to show off, as though he knows nobody else can do this better than he can. I lost count of how many times Fury Road one-ups both itself and the iconic spectacle of the previous three Mad Max movies. George Miller isn’t a young man – by any conventional metric he’s an old one, and this, despite the relentless breakneck energy, feels like an old man’s action movie, like it’s done a lot of living. A world where teenage kamikaze drivers deliriously pursue Valhalla needs to feel like that, as though there’s something under the hood other than just the fuel to keep them going. Fury Road is hauling a tanker-load of diverse ideas, but they’re unified into a single, surprising theme: men destroyed the world, and women are going to save it.
The Mad Max series has never just been about vehicular carnage, at least not for its own sake. The 1979 original had a bare-bones revenge plot: in it, Hugh Keays-Byrne (who’s also the man behind Immortan Joe’s respirator) made Max a widower as the biker-gang leader, Toecutter. But the movie was more concerned with the idea of marriage and family, and of vengeance itself as a hopelessly self-defeating spiral. Its sequel, The Road Warrior, was about communities in a world driven mad by an endless thirst for resources, and Thunderdome recast that same world primarily through the eyes of children and their parents. In Fury Road, that all-encompassing thirst is a literal one, the coveted substance being water rather than gasoline, but the world is still broken and depraved, and the blame for that is laid unapologetically at the feet of men. I’m not imagining this – at one point Max washes away blood with literal mother’s milk; at another, he sinks to his knees at the feet of Charlize Theron so that she can better steady her rifle across his back. Fury Road might represent an action-movie strain of feminism, but it’s unashamedly a feminist movie, one with, ironically, the balls to explicitly tie humanity’s eventual betterment to the complete dismantling of the patriarchy.
Of course, it was pure chance that Fury Road emerged within a media climate that has, over the last couple of years, made issues of sexism, exploitation and objectification more loudly- and frequently-discussed than ever before. Here we are, though, with a movie that is unambiguously progressive, and just so happens to be the very best action film of at least the last decade. Wherever you happen to hang your hat when it comes to conversations of representational parity, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to earnestly suggest that Fury Road’s quality is in some way a coincidence, rather a direct consequence, of it actively eschewing the tropes, clichés and patterns at the root of media-misogyny.
Ultimately, though, it hardly matters, as there’s enough invention, wit and craftsmanship on display in every frame of Fury Road that simply being a fan of action movies or cinema in general is grounds enough to enjoy it on its own terms – regardless of whether or not it serves an agenda you’re personally supportive of or opposed to. There’s a common misconception among moviegoers – and game-players and TV-watchers and book-readers – that enjoying or supporting something which doesn’t subscribe entirely to your personal politics is akin to wearing the opposing team’s jersey at a sports game, or flying another country’s flag. But what’s great about the movies is the same thing that’s great about life: in them, anyone can do anything. Anyone can be anything. And it doesn’t matter whether or not you believe in the story’s message, or if there’s even a message at all. The best stories, those that squirrel through your imagination and leave their fingerprints on your soul, do so because they believe in themselves. This is one of those movies, one of those stories: proudly, defiantly itself.
I have no idea if we’ll see another Mad Max movie, or if we’ll see another anything with the same kind of flagrant disregard for convention. In its way, Fury Road seems designed to reshape what we expect from this genre; a reimagining of what it means to be a hero or a villain in an action movie. The bad guys, in particular, form a terrifyingly vivid tableau, from that flame-throwing Doof Warrior to the blind gunslinger, Bullet Farmer; from Immortan Joe in his punk Coup De Ville to his huge, tragically-simpleminded son, Rictus Erectus (played by Australian action stalwart Nathan Jones). One of the movie’s moments of genuine pathos comes, weirdly, from him, bellowing about loss while stood atop a speeding monster truck. And it hits you harder than anything Max does, partly because it’s unexpected, but equally because in a lot of ways that guy encapsulates everything that makes Fury Road great; not just the size, or the intensity, or the violence, but who and what all that stuff is actually for. It’s not who you think – not women, not genre fans, not Mad Max aficionados. It’s everyone. We’re all a little crazy sometimes, and as life rockets past, we cling on and hope we can make it to whatever destination we seek. Mad Max: Fury Road reminds us all to scream at the world along the way.
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