MAD MAX: FURY Road is the kind of movie this world doesn’t deserve, just yet. When female characters are treated as more than vehicles for the advancement of a man’s story, when the audience for action films aren’t treated like children whose hands need to be held through slow plots and tasteless action sequences, when the best that can be said about representation in Star Trek Into Darkness isn’t that at least Sulu and Uhura were the race they’re supposed to be, we might deserve a movie like this one, a B-movie exploitation flick, with all the style of its predecessors, with $150 million to spend.
The movie spends around half a minute explaining how the Earth ended up like this; you’ve seen this all before, director George Miller seems to say, now let’s put our foot on the pedal. Fury Road takes place in an unspecified part of the Australian wasteland, where clean water is like mana from the heavens and Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Bryne) is their God. He rules over the populace from a giant Citadel with his gang of irradiated War Boys, who have kidnapped the gravelly-voiced Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), using him as a human blood bank for an almost unrecognisable Nicholas Hoult as Nux.
When Joe’s prize “breeders”, five women whose role in this dystopia sort of speaks for itself, go missing, he rallies his mobile army to give chase as they seek escape with the one-armed Imperator Furiousa (Charlize Theron).
What follows is, basically, a chase sequence that lasts two hours. After the opening set piece, as the ultra-violent convoy charges headfirst into a sandstorm, there is barely time to take a breath as Furiousa’s War Rig charges across the endless desert; Nux, Max and the “Wives” in tow. Among the vehicles is one with a giant speaker system, topped with a guitarist who shoots giant flames from his axe, and a fleet of cars with wires that bend and stretch, the War Boys like post-apocalyptic, murderous trapeze artists. Monster truck tyres, a regular car running on tank treads, the rides in Fury Road look like they were caught in an explosion and pieced back together moments before they arrive onscreen, only to be exploded again moments after.
The film is an unrelenting collage of orange; Immortan Joe promises the gates of Valhalla are lined with chrome, and it’s clear that nothing stays clean for long, in this wasteland. The film feels organic, like if got too close to the screen the smell of dust, gasoline and blood would knock you off your feet. The violence is more visceral than this year’s Furious 7, and more grounded and practical than the last three entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which all ended (spoiler) with a big thing (spoiler) falling out of the sky (spoiler). It’s balletic and masterfully choreographed, the vehicular equivalent to last year’s Indonesian martial arts epic The Raid 2.
Hardy is an actor who can do broody and character-driven performances when required (Locke, The Drop) but excels in physical roles, breaking out as Charles Bronson and getting top billing as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. Max is incredibly short on dialogue, but what we do know is his only goal is survival; again, the film wastes no time explaining his backstory which, we can gather, results in him being plagued by visions of people in his life he could not save.
He joins Furiousa because the only alternative is capture. He is the engine on which the story runs; and make no mistake, this is Furiousa’s story as much as his. Theron’s similarity to Ellen Ripley in Alien 3 is no coincidence, bald-headed, face blackened with motor oil, her strength and agency are unquestionable. She arrives fully-formed, ready to join the pantheon of women heroes in films that already includes Ripley, Sarah Connor and both versions of Uhura.
The politics of the film are much less in-your-face than the violence, but much has (rightly) been said of the film’s abundance of female characters. It is a rare thing for so many women to appear in a movie with this much money to lose (comparably, Pitch Perfect 2 could be made five times with this film’s budget), but when the War Rig meets up with an all-female biker gang in Act 2, Hardy and Hoult are outnumbered 5 to 1.
“If the Bechdel test is an ankle height bar that Hollywood refuses to go slightly out of its way to step over, Mad Mad: Fury Road effortlessly pirouettes over the bar, and all those who believe it to be a reasonable standard for female character’s contributions to contemporary film.”
– Lu Egan
Chains, and the subsequent breaking of chains, is a theme that runs through Fury Road, and the connects to the gender dichotomy where Immortan Joe is the explotative, objectifying patriarchal villain while Furiousa and co. represent a freedom denied them and an unstoppable search for redemption and hope. It’s liberating, but the message of Mad Max: Fury Road never feels like it gets in the way of the action, and vice versa.
Mad Max: Fury Road is released on DVD on October 5th.