Mad Max: Fury Road, or, Action Movies Turned Upside Down

26 May

It’s worth saying that my remarks about sequels, spinoffs and reboots last week are not absolute – as we know, only Sith deal in absolutes. That said I’m in an odd position on this one because I’m not even passingly acquainted with the latest franchise to be revived.

I remember tuning in to one of the original Mad Max films on the TV once. I watched maybe ten minutes, and thought, marauding bands of gang rapists, helpless women in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, with a stoic badass hero ready to come roaring in to wreck up the bad guys and prove what a manly man he is. And also he’s played by Mel Gibson. Ho hum. I changed the channel.

So, you might reasonably wonder why I showed up to this movie at all. Part of it was the cast: I’ve been consistently impressed by Tom Hardy’s performances in Star Trek Nemesis, Inception, Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy and the Dark Knight Rises, and Charlize Theron owned the Italian Job in my opinion.

But the movie somewhat betrayed my expectations before I even got to see it: I didn’t read any reviews, lest I meet spoilers, but I was taken aback when, far from being written off as another boys’ violencefest, the kinds of dudebros who revel in that kind of movie were absolutely incensed by Mad Max: Fury Road. The abysses of internet machismo billowed forth with rage against Hollywood’s diabolical plot to ensure that “men in America and around the world are going to be duped by explosions, fire tornadoes, and desert raiders into seeing what is guaranteed to be nothing more than feminist propaganda.”

Hang on tight!

Hot diggedy! An action movie that’s infuriating to macho tosspots? What more could I ask for! So when the movie at last reached my smalltown cinema, off I went.

In the future, the world has been piled on by catastrophe until it has been reduced to a stark desert wasteland, roamed by marauding tribes of biker gangs, road pirates, and petty lordlings sitting on hordes of fuel, ammo or water.

Max is a broken man, a cop before the world descended into hell, tormented both by the various hordes and cults speckling the endless desert, and by the shadows of those he couldn’t save. He is captured by the crazed ‘warboys’ of the cult leader and pervert extraordinaire Immortan Joe, for no other purpose than to be a ‘blood bag’ to sustain the diseased warboys. However, when he is dragged along like baggage on a pursuit of a runaway gasoline tanker, he is unexpectedly pulled into the tribulations of Furiosa, Joe’s best driver, who has gone rogue to rescue five women – Immortan Joe’s harem – his ‘prize breeders’ – to deliver them from the lecherous warlord and his palace of, to borrow a phrase from the Goblin King in An Unexpected Journey, “abomination, mutation and deviation.”

Together they face enemies on all sides, desperate scarcity and sheer exhaustion as they quest for freedom, for redemption, and for a better world in the midst of desolation.

I suspect that my lack of prior familiarity with the Mad Max franchise handicaps me slightly. I realized that for about the first half-hour the dialogue, such as there was, was so thick with man-child future slang (Australian future slang, no less) that I barely understood a word any of Joe’s minions were saying. Although the constant racket of muscle car engines might’ve had something to do with that.

I also had a thought, that their crazed behaviour and demented language is reminiscent of the Orks in Warhammher 40K, as is the general aesthetic of skulls, spikes, gungy metalwork and roaring engines. If this backtracks to the original movies, then this may have influenced 40K.

Likewise, the general look of the ‘warboys,’ with their pale skin, shirtlessness, goggles and love of wild Gollumesque hopping about looks suspiciously like the raiders from the video game Borderlands, and the vastness of the landscape, the way things like bullets have become currency and the ubiqutious scars, mutations and deformities bring to mind the Fallout games.

So it would appear that Mad Max’s cultural pedigree is well-established, and with the original director, George Miller at the helm, I imagine this carries through from the original films.

The post-apocalyptic aesthetic is quite fascinating : a future where all technology is basically improvised and based on found materials (another thing it shares with 40K), where the economy basically runs on bullets and gasoline. Indeed, Immortan Joe’s vassals are “Gas Town” and “the Bullet Farm.” According to some brief background research I undertook, during the 70s when the first movie was made, Australia had a machismo culture surrounding cars in much the same way America has with guns. And this is reflected in how gasoline, diesel, chrome and the cars themselves are given higher priority over, say, water despite them living essentially in the Outback to the Nth Degree. The fact that Joe rides out to battle towing a sound system and a mutated freak playing Death Metal all day is equal parts contemptible and hilarious.

On this vast arena, there are ideal conditions for lots of exciting chase scenes. And that’s good because when you get down to it, Mad Max: Fury Road is basically one long chase scene. When I began to suspect that this was what was in the offing, I was worried that I’d end up getting action fatigue, as I did with the first Hobbit movie.

But to my surprise, that format actually works surprisingly well. The movie is incredibly suspenseful, with our heroes constantly enduring the packs of perverts nipping at their heels, fighting them off and struggling to stay ahead of them as they try to find the semi-mythical ‘Green Place.’

And I think the reason it works so well is because Fury Road’s agenda isn’t being a whiz-bang, shooty, awesome action movie. It isn’t trying to make you feel thrilled all the time. It’s showing the characters struggling and inviting you to share in the stress, exhaustion and (very) occasional relief. It doesn’t try to get you to cheer for the heroes, it just wants you to empathize with them. When you see Joe’s warboys whooping and carrying on as they throw exploding harpoons at their enemies while all our heroes can do is run and put themselves on the line to not get killed, then you find yourself regarding all the explosions and gunfire with horror and alarm, as in “oh, no! Will their getaway truck still work after that hit? Will they get away?”

Our heroines, Charlize Theron’s Furiosa and the Concubines Five, are willing to fight and kill to protect themselves if need be, but a lot of the time all they can do is keep their heads, resort to desperate human shield tactics (Joe wants them back, after all, especially since at least two of them are pregnant with his spawn), and the movie once again subverts the old standbys, in this case regarding action movie eye candy.

When Max first sees the escapees, through a haze of blood loss and dehydration, scantily clad and bathing, like an Arabian Nights mirage, it seems like he’s hypnotized by boobs, but then you see that some of them are visibly pregnant, and then you think about how they got that way, and then you see them cutting off their shackles and chastity belts, and the sexy aspect suddenly drains away almost entirely. By equal degrees it makes you root for their success and despise the lecherous cretin hunting them more than any standard action movie would call on you to do.

Now, having gotten this far into the review, you might find it odd that I’ve barely mentioned the guy whose name is, after all, right smack up there in the title. What about Max? Well, it’s hard to say, in a way. We don’t get to know him well at first, if only because there’s frustratingly little dialogue in this movie (why I can’t remember the concubines’ names) and in a way it’s weird that he appears to be little more than a supporting character. One of the main objections brought up by the dudebro squawkers was that Furiosa orders him around a fair bit, and Mad Max is a man so obviously he should be in charge of everything, right?

And to me, that’s part of the brilliance of the movie, because Max’s redemption isn’t about him being large and in charge, but in just doing the right thing, putting himself at the service of a noble cause that’s bigger than he is! If he had taken charge and been the big hero, he would have just been a mirror image of the hypermacho villains pursuing them! It’s interesting to note that only when Max starts becoming helpful to Furiosa and company, as opposed to basically commandeering their escape for his own uses does he become talkative or relatable. He spends most of the beginning of the movie trailing around a sort of sadistic collar/mask thing and a chain from his captivity, and the more he becomes an ally to the group, the more of that stuff he gets to take off and the less he looks like one of the warboys’ playthings. It’s a triumph of symbolism. He does come up with a plan that gives them the shot at final victory, but he offers it to the female characters, as their decision, and once again is simply at their service.

The term ‘gritty realism’ gets thrown around a lot these days, but Mad Max: Fury Road achieves a gritty realistic tone without fetishizing pain, violence or sexual exploitation the way, say, Game of Thrones is so infamous for doing. I gather that George Miller started out as a surgeon before going into the movie business, and so he’s in a good place to appreciate how much punishment the human body can actually take. It isn’t completely consistent – I can’t remember any of the characters eating, which struck me as a bit odd. Some really interesting supporting characters don’t make it through the movie which is frustrating and heartbreaking but it’s the kind of demands a movie with such investing stakes requires. Interestingly, the goriest moments are just offscreen or otherwise hidden by sleight-of-camera, and in a number of cases that actually makes it more gut-punchingly effective that the in-your-face approach of Game of Thrones, 300 or Sin City.

I’m honestly not clear on whether Mad Max: Fury Road is a sequel to or remake of the previous movies, but taken by itself it is exceptional. I’m pretty sure it actually is intended as a feminist movie, but even if it isn’t, like my old friend Sucker Punch, I can totally see that interpretation as being fully supported by the story and symbolism. The online macho men are probably right that it is a blow against traditional action movie hypermasculinity, but in defying the old conventions, it achieves a depth, intelligence and emotional engagement that Conan the Barbarian or 300 can’t hope to achieve. It’s not to say that there’s no place for dumb action flicks (I like 300, myself) but they’re sugary snacks and something like Fury Road is a well-balanced, nutritious and satisfying meal.

Given the lengths that internet dudebros are willing to go to these days to keep the lid on the little box they live in, I happily admit that I think they deserve every bit of suffering this movie’s content and success inflicts on them, and I applaud the world at large for recognizing the movie for it’s thematic value and excellent acting. It’s demanding, exhausting and sometimes very disturbing, but meaningful, exhilarating, and accessible to almost anyone, male or female, and it is the nobler for it.

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Posted by on May 26, 2015 in Movie


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