mad • adj.
1. mentally disturbed; deranged; insane; demented
2. enraged; angry
3. confused; frantic
max • noun. slang
1. the greatest quantity or amount possible
2. an upper limit allowable by law
Never has the title of a film been so apt. This film is full on bonkers.
Initially I had no intention of seeing Mad Max: Fury Road but the positivity of the reviews has been off the chart. Forbes Magazine described it as ‘a remarkable and glorious motion picture, not just one of the great action films of our time but also a great and timely film, period’ and The New York Times said it was ‘not only art but radically visionary’. The consensus appears to be that this is some kind of masterwork of the genre with everyone agreeing that it is audacious, extreme, unpredictable and totally totally nuts. Little wonder that my curiosity was piqued. I mean who wouldn’t want to see a visceral and off the chain action movie from the director of Babe 2: Pig in the City and Happy Feet?
To be fair, it is these recent forays into children’s films that are out of character for George Miller. He also gave us Lorenzo’s Oil, The Witches of Eastwick and, of course, the original Mad Max Trilogy. I’d not seen any of the other Mad Max films, hence my lack of interest in this one but I’ve done a bit of homework now and watched part one. If I’m honest, it didn’t boost my enthusiasm. If anything it took me a few steps back.
I’d always understood that these films presented a harsh dystopian future but that’s not the case with the first one. If there was an apocalypse it must have been very gentle. Yes there is a bit of lawlessness but things really aren’t that bad. The protagonist isn’t particularly deranged either, certainly not until the last fifteen minutes. Seriously, when tough cop Max Rockatansky’s partner is targeted by the biker gang and left hideously disfigured and disabled, how does he react? He packs up his station wagon and goes on vacation with his wife and kid. This is not a guy you’d want to upset unless you want to find yourself staring down the business end of half an hour of holiday snaps. I am informed the formula for these movies was not established until part two but I am happy to take their word for it. Nonetheless this new one was supposed to be amazing and they’ve been heralding it as a great feminist film as well so it needed to be seen.
Let’s start with the gender politics. It is possible that this was intended as a great feminist fable but unfortunately it seems that no one remembered to tell the costume designer. The film is set in a barbaric and baron future where the water, and therefore the power, is held by a brutal patriarch called Immortan Joe. In this society woman are largely kept as chattel and made to produce either milk or babies. To this end Joe keeps five wives, each named after a single characteristic like smurfs. The action starts as one of the drivers of Joe’s favourite souped up oil tanker, a tough lady called Imperator Furiousa smuggles the spouses; Splendid, Capable, Knowing, Fragile and Dag (an Australian word for nerd) aboard her rig and tries to drive them to freedom.
Ignoring for a moment this whole sexist conceit and the fact that Ms Furiousa would never get promoted to such a key position in this unimaginably cruel world of inequality, this does give us a very pro-female story. A woman rescues other women from an evil chauvinist, so far so feminist. The problem is that the quintet of wives, average age twenty five, are dressed kind of sexy throughout.
I get that they come from a place of objectification and I get that it’s hot in this post nuclear desert but once they are out of Joe’s clutches do none of them want a shawl or a long skirt or a nice pully? No, they stick with the bandage bikinis. I know it works in context but these outfits are not totally necessary and while the girls may have escaped Joe’s gaze they can’t get away from the camera’s. They are just wearing such small pants for such a pseudo feminist tale.
Fortunately with Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiousa it is a different story. With this lady they have got it right. First off she is not as thinly sketched as the other female characters, or the male characters come to that. She is tough, she is determined, she is brave, she drives the action forward, she drives a truck and she is fully dressed. The role also doesn’t feel tokenistic in any way. Other female action heroes like Lara Croft and Theron’s own Æon Flux felt like deliberate efforts to address a gender imbalance in the genre but that isn’t the case here. Despite its title Mad Max 4 is a woman’s story and Furiosa is the true heir to great action female role models like Ellen Ripley. The franchise that had Tina Turner belting out ‘We Don’t Need Another Hero’ in 1985 has come good on that sentiment in a big way by giving us a new and authentic Hollywood heroine.
Mention does need to go to Tom Hardy too, playing the supporting role. The script was first written for original series star Mel Gibson fourteen years ago but the delay and Gibson’s deteriorating reputation have served it well because the resulting recasting works. It is hard to imagine that Gibson’s performance would have given as much room to the leading lady and Hardy is strong without overshadowing the true protagonist.
What then of all that other stuff about the film being ‘glorious’ and ‘radical’ and ‘visionary’? I don’t think I was as impressed as the critics, possibly because of the expectations they had set up, but the movie is superb in its design and car-reography. If you enjoy a good automobile chase then this delivers with style. The vehicles are beautifully imagined; as though someone has emptied out their box of outlandish Hot Wheels toy cars and brought them majestically life. The film is a masterpiece of fat tyres, huge exhaust pipes, expansive wheel arches and growling engine vents and there is genuine joy in watching these carts speed, twist, turn, spin and explode across the screen. In this day and age it is always nice to see the names in the credits for stunt work vastly outnumber those for visual effects and everyone here is doing their best work. There isn’t anything that made my jaw drop, like the lobby scene in The Matrix or half of what happens in Fast & Furious 7, but it is all pretty spectacular.
There is a lack of a sophisticated narrative to accompany the action though and this is both the movie’s strength and its weakness. It is good that nothing overshadows the action but the sketchy story holds it back from greatness. The inevitable sequels will struggle even more to find this balance as more of the same won’t do and over complicating it could kill it. For now though it is fun, erratic, berserk, scrappy and occasionally a little disturbing (it has one of the most dark, most matter of fact birth scenes I’ve ever witnessed) but a lot of fun.
Is this one for the kids?
The wives aren’t the most dressed down in the film as there is also some pointless, if not gratuitous, female nudity elsewhere. It isn’t this that pushes the movie to a 15 certificate though; it’s the varied, if not bloody, traffic fatalities. I’m telling you, these people’s disregard for basic road safety is shocking. If you wave a chainsaw around on top of a moving vehicle you are just asking for trouble and none of them are wearing seat belts.