By Alan Mattli
I have long come to the conclusion that action movies are not exactly my cup of tea. Maybe it’s because I have not been subjected to this particular genre at an early age as much as to other genres; I have, for the most part, not made the formative experience of defying official age restrictions to see the latest action blockbuster in the cinema with my primary school friends. Outlandish explosions and frantic chase scenes do not seem to have a profound effect on my adrenaline levels. I like Terminator 2 mainly because of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Marvel movies excite me because the characters are memorable; the appeal of the James Bond franchise is lost on me.
And yet, I went to see Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth entry into George Miller’s series of dystopian vehicular action films – following Mad Max (1979), Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) –, twice. To say that it has turned me into an action convert would be an overstatement. If anything, the two viewings showed me that my adrenaline can be lamentably unresponsive even at the best of times. But that does not take away from the fact that Fury Road is one of the most awe-inspiring, most audacious films of the year.
While a case can be made that Australian cinema came of age with Mad Max, its third sequel might just prove to be another landmark. George Miller, whose directing filmography is interspersed with decidedly harmonious fare (Lorenzo’s Oil, Babe: Pig in the City, Happy Feet), brings its predecessors’ depiction of faltering masculinity to its logical conclusion, blowing off the chauvinistic dust from the action genre as a whole and wrenching it into the 21st century.
“Mad” Max Rockatansky (played by Tom Hardy, who replaces the iconic Mel Gibson) is all but useless as the lone hero figure here, slowly succumbing to trauma and isolation in the vastness of a post-apocalyptic wasteland one may or may not take to be the Australian outback. Fury Road opens with him being captured and turned into a human blood bag by the “Kamakrazee War Boys”, the sickly army of desert tyrant and cult leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Thus, Max is immobilised for a fair portion of the movie, either suspended upside-down in a cage or tied to the hood of a War Boy’s (Nicholas Hoult) beefed up car – ceding the role of the protagonist to one-armed Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a rogue ally of Joe’s, who has stolen the dictator’s favourite “breeding wives”, which prompts him and his cavalcade of pursuit vehicles to chase the women through the desert.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this film is how matter-of-factly it subverts decades, if not centuries, of gendered narratives. Although he eventually joins Furiosa and the wives – The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, miles away from the demeaning role she played in Transformers: Dark of the Moon), Toast the Knowing (Zoë Kravitz), Capable (Riley Keough), The Dag (Abbey Lee), and Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eaton) –, Max never becomes a knight in shining armour who is the damsels’ only hope of survival. (In the end, he even takes up the role of the healer, which is conventionally reserved for female characters.) Not only does the power to advance the getaway vehicle (a sizeable war rig), and thus the plot, lie firmly in the hands of Furiosa; her human cargo, each of them a distinct individual with her own characteristics, is never really in need of being saved. Once they have left behind the patriarchal oppression of Immortan Joe’s Citadel, they are not prizes to be won – as has been the case in countless works of male-dominated storytelling – but active, at-risk agents in a story that does not put them in a subordinated, doted-over position. Romance, too, is almost entirely absent from Fury Road. There is no hamfisted spontaneous blossoming of feeling between Max and Furiosa, whose relationship is marked by mutual respect and pragmatic partnership only.
With the help of The Vagina Monologues playwright Eve Ensler, who served as a consultant during the screenwriting process, Miller has constructed a rousingly feminist narrative that seems to rest on two very simple ideological pillars: women are not things – a truth the action genre at large still seems hesitant to embrace fully – and gender relations are a cooperative. The fact that this message has caused an uproar among the infamous, and sadly rather numerous, “Men’s Rights” activists underlines both the validity and the importance of Miller’s film.
But this rich feminist subtext, which never degenerates into a sermon, is by no means the only reason why Fury Road deserves all the praise it has received over the past month or so. Apart from its topical prowess, the film could serve as a lesson for how to conceive, direct, and shoot an action movie. This is kinetic cinema at its finest and purest, blending the legacy of the American western, with its single-minded chases through the empty plains of the frontier, with the breakneck speed and sheer preposterousness of a Road Runner cartoon. Over the course of two high-octane hours, Miller conducts a veritable orchestra of car crashes and explosions – enhanced by CGI, but fabricated by old-fashioned pyrotechnics in the presence of daring stunt personnel –, each carefully crafted set piece fulfilling a designated purpose in the cohesive fabric of the whole.
In its breathless simplicity, Mad Max: Fury Road truly creates the atmosphere of a post-apocalyptic world where conversations are sparse and to-the-point – both Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron excel at conveying multiple layers of emotions through looks, grunts, and shouts alone –, where the action, in the form of revving up V8 motors, literally speaks louder than words. Miller peoples this dystopia with a wide array of arresting characters – Furiosa and the wives being only the tip of the iceberg –, from an operatic warlord (Richard Carter) and a motorcycle gang comprised mainly of older women to a blind War Boy playing an unmistakably phallic double-neck guitar that spits fire. It’s a dizzying piece of action craftsmanship where creativity abounds, where the sumptuous oranges and blues of DP John Seale’s compositions reign, where one becomes engulfed by the hypnotic soundscape of running motors and Tom Holkenborg’s aka Junkie XL’s archaic score. This is one hell of a ride, indeed.
For more reviews (in German), visit www.facingthebittertruth.com.