The Awesomely Original and Totally Unexpected “Mad Max: Fury Road”
Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t just the best action movie of the summer. Or the best action flick of the year. The fourth installment of the Mad Max franchise might just be the best action movie of the whole goddamn decade.
We live in a sorry state for action movies, oscillating between the two poles that govern the current landscape of guns and expensive explosions in Hollywood: On one end, there’s nothing but nervous hand-wringing about the wussification of contemporary America, a camp that’s determined to do things the old fashioned way by breaking out the old stars and even wrinklier narratives (see: The Expendables, Jason Statham’s continued viability as a lead in any action film); On the other, Disney and Marvel’s obstinate insistence on squeezing every last million in box office revenue that they can from now until 2050 out of increasingly weary superhero plotlines and slavish devotion to the insatiable nation of nerddom that the comic studio both feeds and shackles itself to (see: anything Avengers, the 2nd premature reboot of Spider-Man to be announced during the Obama administration).1
But just try to name an action movie sequel that feels as fresh, as completely original, as fucking awesome, as Fury Road.2 You can’t, because nothing’s touching it.
At least 90% of the movie is taken up by cars, explosions, and gunfire (often all at once), with the remaining 10% spent catching the movie’s breath before revving the cars, explosions, and gunfire back up again. There’s 10-pages of dialogue max in the 2+ hour film,3 and most of that is just characters grunting incoherently as they kill people.
You get the sense watching Fury Road that director George Miller labored for over a decade to transport you (in some ungodly offspring of a Bentley and a giant dick) at 10,000 RPMs into his savagely novel, freakishly beautiful world populated by insane men and women distorted almost beyond recognition by years of unchecked thirsting for violence and diesel. The movie doesn’t waste any time before peeling off into the heart of its post-apocalyptic rage — who’s got time for bullshit like “context” or “narration” when there’s so much rubber left to burn.
No part of the movie demonstrates just how unique and breathtakingly badass Fury Road gets than Miller’s “Doof Warrior” character, a dude who leads the villain Immortman Joe’s troops into battle by playing a double-necked guitar in front of a literal wall of amps that’s attached to a speeding car as the neck of his guitar literally shoots a flamethrower out of its neck. It makes no goddamn sense, but it doesn’t have to, because it’s sole purpose for existing is because it’s so absurdly cool. And in the world of Fury Road, you don’t have to justify your existence, you just exist, wearing long johns and shredding your ax like a 12-year-old who just heard Master of Puppets for the first time.
And yet, some dudes just can’t have nice things.
Turns out, some people aren’t too happy with an action movie daring to give women anything more than a one-dimensional role that passively serves to advance the plot. Because there’s something else about Fury Road that makes it so original, so unlike any other action movie made with this big of a budget or this much press: Mad Max isn’t really about Max. It’s about a group of women led by Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa who don’t just reject the violence of a patriarchal society, but proceed to unleash a revenge fantasy on the teeming armies of the post-apocalyptic desert that could rival Teeth.
There’s nothing subtle about Mad Max, right down to the male characters washing the blood of their enemies off their face with mother’s milk. But what did you expect from a movie called Fury Road? For Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron to sit down in the desert for a thorough parsing of the implications of Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist theory? This is a movie where the villain’s harem of “wives” cut their chastity belts with bolt cutters, and the Bechdel Test is passed by having one woman scream at another to load a clip into a gun. If you expected a nuanced treatment of gender from a film about warring gangs of gearheads in the Australian outback, then maybe you’re operating at a similarly low level as most adherents of “Men’s Rights.”
Look, it’s easy to take (correct) potshots at sexists who complain about Fury Road. So let’s get this out of the way: Every action movie makes a political claim about gender (and class, and race, and all the other juicy parts of our identity). These movies we love so much are making inherent arguments about who has power, who can exert their will on others, and who can save the day or the helpless victim from the scourge of evil. And — spoiler alert — these heroes are almost always strong white men. We just don’t walk out of the movie theater and take to Twitter to decry Bruce Willis or Liam Neeson personifying white manly dominance, because that narrative appears normal in our world. It doesn’t raise any flags quite like, say, Immortman Joe’s white-clad wives not just declaring “We are not things,” but backing it up with a big-ass gun.
On top of how perfectly it executes on the whole “cars, explosions, and guns” front, this inversion of typical gender roles in Hollywood films is essential to what makes Fury Road feel so refreshingly original and compelling.
It didn’t have to be this way either — Miller could have focused on making stuff go “boom” and not done things like bring in The Vagina Monologues‘ Eve Ensler to consult on the film, and made just as big of a windfall come opening weekend. But by opening up roles typically reserved to the realm of men (like saving the day, deciding who gets to live or die, getting at least half the screen-time, driving the aforementioned kinda phallic “War Rig,” sustaining copious amounts of blood loss, and not being so one-dimensional in general) to female characters, it made everything far more interesting, and certainly unlike anything I can remember seeing. The presence of women taking a central role in the destruction of a gang of pasty white dudes made Fury Road feel like it was about so much more while still working within (and totally owning) the contours of the action genre.4
Is Mad Max heavy handed? Yeah, of fucking course it’s as heavy handed as Tom Hardy’s metaphorical fist in your metaphorical stomach. Is it a useful example moving forward of what a more “feminist” pop film could look like? Meh, it’s more of just a headshot to our notions of what an action movie can be, not a blueprint for the future.
Mad Max: Fury Road gives you what you paid for and so much more — butt-clenching action scenes and “holy fuck yeah” moments and sheer awesomeness the likes of which hasn’t been seen in a long time, and won’t easily be replicated in the near future. It takes you into its cab, revs the engine, cranks the REO Speedwagon, and blasts off into the desert to lay waste to the entire world as you know it.