DIRECTED BY: GEORGE MILLER
STARRING: TOM HARDY, CHARLIZE THERON, NICHOLAS HOULT, HUGH KEAYS-BYRNE
There has been a thirty year wait for Mad Max to return to cinemas, for years the fourth movie has languished in development hell. Many long term fans must have wondered if it would ever really happen and when it was finally announced if it could ever live up to the hype and nostalgic love for the originals.
What no one could have foreseen was director George Miller giving audiences not just one of the greatest action movies ever made but also one of the most subversive, a film that defies every expectation and shows the rest of Hollywood that they seriously need to up their game.
In the last thirty years Miller had directed only three films, all for children Happy Feet and Happy Feet Two and Babe: Pig in the City. Yet he managed to convince a major motion picture studio to give him $150 million to make a new Mad Max. You at home may think it the usual process to allow a director to return to his own film series especially in the age of film makers like George Lucas and Peter Jackson who wield huge control over the films they make. Yet Miller does not have their kind of clout but still managed to convince the executives he was the man for the job. Perhaps the cocaine mountain that the Hollywood higher ups live under was running low the day this was signed off. He could have been replaced with a gun for hire who would have pumped out a cheap and cheerful by the numbers action film which just happened to be called Mad Max, luckily for audiences the stars were in a different alignment.
In an era of endless remakes, reboots, sequels, prequels and spin off’s before release people were asking what was this film. Where did it fit in? Would there be a new origin story? Time for the second piece of subversion, its none of them. It doesn’t bog you down or waste 45 minutes on set up, a guy named Max is alone in a post apocalyptic world and he is driving the same car Mel Gibson drove in the old movies. Got it? Good lets get on with the action.
And it is action from the start. Action staged in a manner that many won’t expect with the iconic car the V8 interceptor sent rolling through the desert in the opening minutes. This isn’t what’s supposed to happen but you should know by now that Miller isn’t playing by the rules. And he breaks the biggest rule of all by making his title character and leading man into the sidekick in his own movie. Yes its true, Max doesn’t say much, he isn’t always centre of the action and he doesn’t always save the day. That honour goes to Charlize Theron who is the star of this film and the focus of the next point of subversion.
Action movies usually feature damsels in distress, women are generally there to be drooled over and swept into the arms of the hunky hero. She maybe feisty but by the moves end she’ll grow to love him and they kiss right? Nope not here, Theron plays Furiosa a woman on a mission. She drives a huge rig and while heading out on a supply run for uber bad guy Immorta Joe (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne who was the iconic baddie Toecutter in the original) she veers off into the wasteland. Its her journey that is the focus, what she is protecting and where she is trying to get to. Yes eventually Max joins her on the journey but he is there to help and their relationship is built on trust and mutual respect of survival abilities. At no point are they mooning over each other. Theron is regarded as one of the most beautiful women in the world but she isn’t here for eye candy purposes, with shaven head, missing forearm (which she has replaced with a mechanical construct) and sporting a scar from being branded like cattle she is given free reign to play a character who is strong and determined. Her missing forearm is never mentioned in the movie an empowering fact for any viewer who may also be an amputee (fetal or otherwise).
Subversion continues when her cargo is revealed. She is fleeing to a supposed safe haven with a group of beautiful young women who are supposed to produce the offspring of bad guy Immortan Joe. Now you might expect these women to be helpless and ready to fill the damsel in distress role but again Miller isn’t interested in your expectations so much as confounding them. These women are beautiful but they don’t just sit there and scream, they use weapons, they help on the war rig, they have conflicts and behave like you would want female characters to behave more often in films. The American cartoonist Alison Bechdel introduced the world to the Bechdel Test,a three step guide to how women are under represented and encounter sexism. To pass a film must contain the following
The movie has to have at least two women in it,
who talk to each other,
about something besides a man
If you are reading those rules and thinking no big deal go back and watch a dozen action films and you will see how many of them fail miserably to pass this in fact don’t limit it to the action genre as it applies to the majority of films.
With all this talk of Max, Furiosa and the crew another important character is still to be mentioned. Joe has an army of War Boys, shaven headed, pale skinned and kept barely alive by blood donors. Early on Max finds himself tethered to one by the name of Nux (played by Nicholas Hoult) but once freed he sees the truth of Joe’s rule and joins the rigs crew, even finding time for a few romantic beats with Capable (played by Riley Keough). In the trailers he was sold as the psychotic bad guy so his arc proves to be incredibly satisfying and yet again goes against what you might think would happen to him.
The more insecure reader might be wondering if all this gets a bit heavy handed, are these messages being shoved in your face? And the answer is yes they are, is this a bad thing? Absolutely not because they are being shoved in your face through the vision of an almost two hour chase through a blasted wasteland! This is a not a film that feels the need to stop and tell you how important it is, the telling is done through the visuals as you are catapulted into the carnage. When the few brief stops do come its to help the story along and also introduce a further bunch of new characters, a group of mature and elder women riding motorcycles in the desert who just happen to be crack shots with their rifles!
Yet all these glorious factors are just part of the whole package as to what makes this film brilliant, another praiseworthy aspect has to be the production design. The vehicles, the locations, the costumes. Everything has been heightened to ridiculous levels but nothing feels to much or out of place it all feels right and like a natural evolution of where society might go after its fall. When the rig is being chased through the desert by Joe’s army and one of his vehicles has six drummers on the back, a stack of amplifiers on the roof and a heavy metal guitarist whose instrument shoots flames you never once think this is to much, because you can’t help but think how fucking cool it all is.
Another problem action films have fallen into in the last twenty years is their tendency to cut everything so quickly and shake the camera so much you can barely take in what’s happening. Here you see everything with plenty of beautiful wide shots showing the full extent of the carnage and crashes yet Miller knows exactly when to cut to a close up or crash zoom to a minor detail. You’ll want to watch again and again, not because of what you missed but because of what has been crafted, the astonishing level of detail and the non stop adrenalin of it all.
Yet another strength is what the film doesn’t tell you, fictional narratives can live and die on their world building, the establishment of which can either suck you in or leave you cold. Once again Miller plays this to perfection, who knows why Joe wears his armour, where do the War Boys come from? Do you get answers to these questions, no you don’t but you don’t need them. You can tell he is evil, you can see the Boys are treated as disposable, this is a film that shows you rather than tells you. But then it also does the reverse of this, Furiousa says she wants redemption, she has obviously been party to horrible things and right then you would expect the flashback scene. Only it never happens, let your imagination run wild, it can be more fun sometimes.
So should you watch Mad Max Fury Road? Yes you should and then you should watch it again, you should show it to anyone who claims to be a film fan. This is not just a motion picture its a significant moment in popular culture that will be praised for years to come. Simply superb.