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Film Review – Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015; Directed by George Miller)

The climactic action sequence of filmmaking impresario George Miller’s first Mad Max film in three decades is a thing of kinetic, overwhelming spectacle. Referencing but greatly expanding on the closing chase battle in previous franchise highpoint Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Fury Road‘s showpiece pits haunted, hunted Max (Tom Hardy, replacing Mel Gibson from the films that made his name as a movie star) and a ragtag band of fellow sympathetic survivors on board a big-rig tanker truck hurtling through an arid, post-apocalyptic wasteland (which has always formerly been Australia but maybe not this time).

Harrassing them with fatal threats of violence and an all-out cacophonous sensory assault is a motor-mounted phalanx of fanatic warriors serving at the malevolent absolute will of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, also the villain in the original Mad Max). Roaring through the desert in modified Frankenauto monsters, Joe’s “war boys” are chalked white and tattooed, armed with projectiles, fire-lances, blades, and a zealous strain of fundamentalist war-religion. Joe stokes the fires of their masculinized aggression with martial rituals, hammerstrokes of propaganda, and spray paint in their mouths that activates their berserker mode; the war boys even have a travelling soundtrack in the form of an ayatollah of rock n’ rollah rig, equipped with half-a-dozen drummers and a demented bungee-strapped metal guitarist surrounded by amps and speakers. Immortan Joe’s war boys are post-civilization suicide bombers, the disposable foot soldiers that enforce their dictatorial leader’s fascistic dominion.

220px-mad_max_fury_roadSo when Max and his cohort defeats Joe and his hateful legions in an impressive conflagration of fiery explosions and twisted metal (that’s not such a spoiler, come now), audiences will cheer in vicarious triumph: “Down with Patriarchy!”

That’s right: Mad Max: Fury Road is a rip-snorting action adrenaline-fest that is also an absurdly satisfying feminist revenge fantasy of the overthrow of a harsh regime of exploitative, misogynist male privilege. This impossible-to-miss dimension (Eve Ensler, playwright of The Vagina Monologues, consulted on the screenplay) has earned it the ire of the ever-insufferable Men’s Rights Activists (when I was younger, we just called those dudes chauvinist dicks) as well as the praise of enthusiasts of a more populist feminism. In more thoughtful circles, it has been debated whether or not the film is truly feminist in nature, despite its clear narrative and thematic intent in that direction. Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency internet-fame doesn’t think it is, and the last time I checked she was in charge of feminism, so who is this penis-hampered critic to question the assessment?

How is Fury Road feminist, and how is it not? Immortan Joe’s stronghold of the Citadel is built on using and abusing all of those under his power, from his war boys and the “blood bag” donors (this is how the captured Max enters the picture, with his universal blood type) who speed their recovery from battle wounds to wheel-turner slaves to throngs of parched peasants who desperately endure in expectation of an occasional ceremonial release of a fleeting gusher of Joe’s hoarded water supply. But women are exploited with special dehumanized nastiness: some are milked like dairy cows, and the most attractive are kept untouched as “brides” for Joe’s own pleasure and use as breeding stock. The one exception is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who drives her own war rig to collect necessary gasoline from a nearby refinery.

But Furiosa is no loyal vassal. Abducted as a girl from a matriarchal tribe who dwell in a fertile “green land”, Furiosa smuggles Joe’s mistreated brides out in her truck on a putative gas run with only her verdant memories as a roadmap to freedom. Joe’s hordes, along with his oil-vendor and arms-dealer allies (all of the ravenously greedy patriarchal order is thus represented), follow in hot pursuit of the women, who get some firm but understanding masculine support from Max (Hardy mutters and grunts, perhaps to hide the fact that his Max doesn’t have an Australian accent like Gibson’s established version) and a de-conditioned war boy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult). There is thus a pretty clear indication of a feminine revolt against misogynist patriarchy built into the narrative, although the women are alternately objectified as sexualized figures and masculinized as violent action figures in the process.

So Fury Road is not a sophisticated feminist text. Well, it isn’t sophisticated at all, or rather brings such ingenuity, visual skill, and gritty, imaginative grandeur to the deeply unsophisticated vehicular action genre that sophistication seems almost beside the point. George Miller is now 70 years old, and though he’s spoken about continuing the franchise (this fourth installment comes precisely 30 years after Gibson last played Max in Beyond Thunderdome, and was in protracted development for half that time), Fury Road feels like a legacy statement, a swashbuckling display of all the cinematic mastery that he’s accrued over his long career.

That it plays like an edgy, risky, and original artistic turn is testament to Miller’s prodigious abilities as an action filmmaker. Political undertones aside, Fury Road is a cracker of an action flick, with furious sequences of unruly, rococo magnificence of motion (much of it accomplished not with CGI but with practical effects and stunts), sturdy, efficient character beats and interludes of stunning visual beauty (sunsets, sunrises, blue-tinted twilight, blazing daylight, desolate landscapes, and a massive dust storm seemingly pulled from a Turner painting). Miller shows an evolved sense of geography not only in the midst of kinetic, chaotic action scenes but also in terms of establishing space and distance for dramatic effect. Like Max and the Gyro Captain observing warlords’ moto-attacks in The Road Warrior from afar, there are palpable senses of accurate proximity and separating space throughout the near-movie-long chase that has the effect of both orientating the audience but also unsettling and even frightening it.

The film was mostly shot in Namibia, and feels less specifically Australian in character than its predecessors, and not simply because only a few of the actors speak with Antipodean vowels. Mad Max up until this film was a franchise of Down Under westerns with the titular character as a simply-spoken cipher with a past of tragedy and a future of grim, solitary survival. His redemption, like many a wandering individualist cowboy antihero in Hollywood westerns, invariably stems from overcoming his selfish grief-driven distrust of forging connections to work with others to achieve a collective good, to protect oases of human decency in a grasping, dangerous context of desperate looting and pervasive, predatory plunder.

These are popularly-conceived Australian thematic values just as they are American ones, and like the Hollywood westerns it is in intertextual conversation with, Mad Max deploys them at least partially to discursively settle a forbidding, vast land (a terra nulius symbolically and even legally, if never quite physically) that once belonged to prior indigenous tenants who were decimated and removed to make room for a majority white European society. Forever at war with bands of savages, Max is a violent but fitfully righteous defender of these values of civilization even if the civilization built upon them disintegrated long ago. Max’s Outback outlaw identity, as well as the persistent visual design intrusion of harsh, constricting metal into wild, unfriendly landscapes, also evokes another frequently disavowed part of Australian history: its origins as an often brutal penal settlement. Max begins Fury Road in chains in the wasteland, his own body not under his control as his blood is taken from him against his will to sustain those who enslave him. What a resonant metaphor for the convict experience in the time of the System.

Considering the Mad Max films’ associations with dark, buried cultural heritages as well as with colonial discourses of disavowal of mass crimes, harnessing this ideologically-troubled rig for the purpose of even a compromised narrative of feminist liberation feels like a tremendous progressive leap forward. That Fury Road is also a visionary, exhilirating thrill ride in a singular aesthetic package achieved predominantly with old-fashioned practical daring and inventiveness rather than with glossy computer effects, a glorious redemption of that frequently misapplied geek culture descriptor “awesome”, are more strong points in its favour. The presence of at least one or two of these factors would make for a film worthy of superlatives in our blockbuster age of maximized imagery but minimized originality. But all of them together makes Mad Max: Fury Road a strong contender for the year’s ultimate cinematic experience.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. January 1, 2016 at 10:07 am

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