Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) **
There was no other movie on the release schedule this year that I was looking forward to as eagerly as Mad Max: Fury Road. The Road Warrior was crucial in forming my cinematic tastes, and although the franchise went badly off the rails with Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, the pre-release publicity for Fury Road left me reasonably confident that it would mark a triumphant return for the Mad Max saga— and if we were really lucky, maybe even for the whole Deserts and Dune Buggies school of post-apocalyptic sci-fi action movies. Keep that anticipation in mind as you read this, because it can’t help but have been a factor in my reaction to this latest Mad Max film. It explains at least part of why Fury Road didn’t just disappoint me, but actively pissed me off.
The opening credits hadn’t even finished before I started to get a sinking feeling in my gut. Like George Romero’s Land of the Dead, Mad Max: Fury Road begins with snippets of voiceover chattering atop the credits, sketching out the contours of the back-story, and they make it clear that the new movie isn’t just sticking with Beyond Thunderdome’s nuclear miscalculation, but intends to carry it several steps further. This time, writer-director George Miller and his co-scribes are adding atomic mutants to the mix, together with an intermediate caste of post-nuclear humanity called “Halflifes”— people whose bone marrow is so congenitally fucked up that they need periodic transfusions from healthy donors to stay alive. And as we’ll see very shortly into the film, Miller and company are also ditching the whole resource-exhaustion thing, even though it’s always been the very core of the series premise. There’s no shortage of petroleum, potable water, or industrial products like automatic firearms and compatible ammunition here, save the artificial scarcities that the rulers of settlements like the Citadel, Gastown, and the Bullet Farm choose to impose upon their subjects. Shit, the Citadel even has a wind farm up on top of the mesa where its potentate resides! Obviously, then, nobody in this movie is ready to wage war for a tank of juice. Rather, their wars are fought over decent chromosomes. Somewhat surprisingly, mutants and Halflifes dominate most of the societies with which Fury Road concerns itself, and what they most covet are healthy men to keep their circulatory systems topped up, and healthy women to serve as breeding stock. Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy, from Inception and Minotaur) enters the picture via the former demand, while the real story revolves around the latter.
The Citadel is ruled by the mutant warlord Immortan Joe (The Blood of Heroes’ Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter in the original Mad Max), whose power rests on the triple foundations of his family’s monopoly on access to the local underground aquifer, his army of Halflife Warboys, and the mystique of bogus godhood that he has cultivated around himself. Obviously that means Joe and his kin also seek to control all the good genes. So when Max wanders into Citadel territory to mope over his dead wife and child (notice that his PTSD flashbacks have given his son a sex change and aged her up from infancy to her early teens), it isn’t long before he’s ambushed and overwhelmed by Warboys and pressed into service as a blood bag for the troops— a duty for which he’s especially well suited, thanks to his universally compatible O-negative serotype. Max winds up assigned to an ambitious young Warboy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult, from Jack the Giant Slayer and Clash of the Titans), which is the only reason he gets to be in the rest of this movie at all. Nux, you see, is desperate to win himself a place in Valhalla before his contamination-born ailments finish killing him, and he finagles a chance to participate in what promises to be the most glorious mission of all time.
As you’ve no doubt already surmised, Immortan Joe maintains a seraglio full of beautiful young girls who are not slowly dying of radiation poisoning or its after-effects. The latter spend pretty much their entire lives pregnant, as their master plays and replays the chromosomal lottery, hoping for even one normal, healthy child. (He could open up a world-famous traveling sideshow with the tribe of freaks his efforts in that direction have already spawned.) And inevitably, not one of those girls is the least bit pleased to be a brood-mare for a disgusting old man with only half a face and a body covered with suppurating sores, who keeps them locked up behind the repurposed door of a pre-apocalyptic bank vault. In an audacious display of feminine solidarity, Immortan Joe’s elderly midwife (Jennifer Hagan) has conspired with his most highly decorated imperator (which is to say, captain), the one-handed slaughter machine aptly known as Furiosa (Charlize Theron, from Prometheus and Snow White and the Huntsman), to smuggle the entire harem to safety aboard the most powerful of the chieftain’s war rigs. Only Furiosa knows her true destination, the land of relatively pristine forest and meadow beyond the wasteland, where she herself lived as a child before she was abducted by one of the Citadel’s slave-raiding parties. It will be Nux’s mission (together with a suitably powerful squadron of Warboy motorized cavalry) to arrest Furiosa, and to return Joe’s six pregnant brides. Max gets dragged along because Nux wasn’t finished getting his latest transfusion when the call to arms came down.
By an infuriatingly implausible turn of events that should have resulted instead in their instant deaths, Nux and Max wind up prisoners aboard the war rig after Furiosa defeats and evades that first attempt to stop her. The next is much more serious. Not only does Immortan Joe send the whole of his army after the renegade imperator, but he leads it in person with Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones, from Conan the Barbarian and Troy), the strongest and fiercest of his sons, at his side. Joe also calls in whatever favors he’s owed by the rulers of Gastown (John Howard, of Twisted Minds and Razorback) and the Bullet Farm (Richard Carter, from The Wicked and Howling III: The Marsupials) to gain their participation in the hunt. Furiosa didn’t gain her position in Joe’s military by being an easy opponent, however, and the brides turn out to be no pushovers, either— especially Joe’s favorite, the Splendid Angharad (Transformers: Dark of the Moon’s Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). Furthermore, as the fugitives approach their destination, the pursuing horde will learn to appreciate the courage and fighting prowess of the War Grannies from the Tribe of the Many Mothers, who control Furiosa’s homeland. In fact, the women are so all-around formidable that Max will have jack shit to do until the journey’s end, when an unexpected setback shifts the objective to the conquest of the Citadel itself— and even then, Max will do only the slightest bit more than jack shit.
Mad Max: Fury Road has provoked quite a few hissy fits from the self-appointed spokesmen for glass-jawed masculinity, and since they seem to be just about the only people other than me who aren’t roof-over-axles in love with this movie, I want to emphasize that their objections to Fury Road are not mine. In fact, I’m thrilled to see an exploitation movie that can plausibly be described as feminist without a whole laundry list of caveats, and kudos to everyone involved for making a film that is so uncompromisingly violent and yet simultaneously so humane. This, after all, is a filmmaking mode in which one can be genuinely impressed and amazed to see a story hinging on sexual slavery told without even a single gratuitous rape scene. (Not that I have anything against gratuitous rape scenes, you understand…) The problem here isn’t that Max is insufficiently macho, or that he gives too much ground to Furiosa, the brides, and the War Grannies. The problem is that he’s in this movie at all. Fury Road is Furiosa’s story in fact, and it deserves to be hers in billing as well. Miller and his co-writers, Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris, must go miles out of their way to find excuses for keeping Max in the picture, and in the end, they come up with nothing that couldn’t just as well have been done by some other character. Every time they pull some cockamamie ploy to remind us that this is in theory a Mad Max movie, it interrupts the flow of the narrative and takes time and attention away from the real protagonists. And what’s more, Tom Hardy’s hapless, hallucination-plagued, and determinedly assholish Max can no more be reconciled with the old Mel Gibson interpretation than this fanciful world of mutated monster men and Siamese-twin Cadillac monster trucks can be reconciled with the more grounded post-apocalyptic setting of the preceding films. So if this isn’t recognizably Max, and it isn’t recognizable his world, and it’s a different actor in the part anyway, then why go through the motions of pretending this is a sequel (or prequel, interquel, reboot, or whatever) to the old franchise? Why not let this story stand on its own, and let its heroine claim the recognition due her?
The fantastical character of Fury Road and its world is itself a big sticking point for me, too, for it indicates a more extreme case of something that already afflicted Beyond Thunderdome. This movie too follows in self-sabotaging ways the example of its predecessors’ copyists, the Italian ones especially. This time, however, it isn’t just the imitators’ preference for nuclear apocalypse over less flashy varieties infecting the Mad Max series, but also their inexhaustible love for the garish, the outlandish, and the absurd. In place of the instantly credible garbage-tech sensibility of The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome, we now have a cheesy blend of Eurocomics retro-futurism and pulp heroic fantasy. Whereas Papagallo’s compound and Bartertown were places that could easily have been built by their inhabitants out of materials scrounged, scavenged, and traded from the ruins of the 20th century, the Citadel resembles some kind of steampunk Angkor Wat. The production designers also ask us to believe that with all the wind and water power at his disposal, Immortan Joe would nevertheless prefer to run important systems like his public aqueduct and the elevator linking his palace to the ground on a monumental slave-labor hamster wheel instead. And as with the last movie’s Cargo Cult Kids (only more so), there’s no thought given here to the centuries that it would have taken to carve the Citadel and its appurtenances out of that mesa. Meanwhile, none of the Warboys drive anything as modest or practical as a late-model sedan with the trunk lid torn out in favor of a swiveling gunner’s seat and a pintle-mounted crossbow. No, with this bunch, it’s all Deuce coupe hotrods, Dodge Chargers with caterpillar tracks, and monster trucks with bodywork swiped form every rare and collectible slab of Detroit iron the production could get its hands on. Oh— and then there’s the guy with the double-necked, flame-throwing guitar. The credits identify him as the Doof Warrior (played by a man with the even more unlikely name of iOTA), and officially he’s called that because of the low-pitched *DOOF!* sound produced by the battery of subwoofer-amplified taiko drums mounted on the vehicle which he rides into action. What makes the name really apt, though, is that whenever you see him, you know the movie’s about to get doofy.
And that leads me to my most unexpected complaint with Mad Max: Fury Road, its desperate, hyperbolic floundering as an action picture. I honestly don’t know what to make of it. In his prime, George Miller was one of the greatest action directors who ever lived, but you’d certainly never guess that from the silly load of bullshit he serves up here. Maybe he just plain lost his touch— it happens to almost everyone eventually. Or maybe he was too acutely conscious of his own age, and overcompensated his way into the ditch. Or, best-case scenario, perhaps he was just doing what he thought it took to get through to the jaded adrenalin junkies of the Ritalin generation. But whatever the reason, none of Fury Road’s action sequences have the confident power that I associate with the name George Miller. Indeed, most of them come closer to Stephen Sommers, if Sommers could be bothered to use practical stunts instead of doing everything in the damned computer. The upshot is another point of resemblance between Fury Road and Beyond Thunderdome, in that this installment too feels like a pair of incompatible movies squished awkwardly together. The thoughtful, introspective, sad-hopeful film about women coming together to look out for each other in the face of hideous adversity keeps getting shouldered aside by a boorish, flatulent clod of a car-chase flick— and neither one of them has any place in it for Mad Max.