Directed by: George Miller. Just once, I’d like to start one of these reviews with a sentence that says something intelligent about the film rather than some banal personal anecdote, but it won’t be today. This was a big one for me, for a few reasons. I was excited by the trailer when I saw it, because I had seen and loved Road Warrior as a kid, and I’d been fascinated by the mythology of this Australian dystopia world. And while I was excited by the prospect of a new Mad Max starring Tom Hardy (excited enough to finally watch Thunderdome), my expectations were not terribly high. I was expecting a typical, dumb, violent, pessimistic post-apocalyptic road movie. You know—a Mad Max movie. Once I saw how the film was embraced by feminists as an intelligent action movie about women (and rejected by MRA douchebags for the same reason), there was no way I couldn’t see it. Here are some reasons why this film is one of the best action films of modern times.
1) It’s a sequel/re-boot in this age of sequels and re-boots that was made as a distinct film, with its own fresh film language, its own tone, etc, even though it was made by the same guy, George Miller. [As a side note, look at this guy’s filmography and tell me that it doesn’t improve your experience of this movie immeasurably to know that the same mind that came up with the idea for a guy in a mohawk and assless chaps also wrote the script for Babe.] Having seen the whole series relatively recently, it’s really striking what a distinct voice this film has. In fact, to me it bears more resemblance to Baz Luhrmann’s stuff than to anything made by Miller himself: the turbo, warp-speed pace, achieved by a healthy dose of jump cuts and fast motion, and the anti-realist, nigh-cartoonish sense of sheer delirium exuded by the characters and their manic death-cult car chasing, all combine to create this very unique vision of a future world made oddly attractive in how repulsive it is. This movie is exemplary of how little ego and how much creative vibrancy Miller still has that he knew that this film would thrive better if he jettisoned his own previously established film language in favour of something new. And what he has made is, as he’s mentioned in interviews, a kind of a-lingual, global, visual film, where the stunning scarcity of dialogue, the literal fast pace of it (well over half the film takes place alongside or in motor vehicles driving at a high speed), and the simple, bare-bones and archetypal nature of the plot make it one of the most immersive films I’ve ever seen, especially in the theatre (and yes, I admit, especially in 3D). On a visual level, at the formal level, it’s a very striking, delightfully pan-global and unpretentious action film, brilliant in its simplicity.
2) This film is also, as noted above, an attempt at an unequivocal, unapologetic feminist film, in the sense that its entire narrative is centered around a woman helping a group of sex slaves flee from an explicit patriarchy. And as far as that goes, I think it’s a successful attempt. This movie, as the MRA ding dongs noticed with such ire, puts the titular hero Mad Max in the backseat (though usually not literally), making this a movie about Furiosa and the Wives escaping the dismal, eugenic, milk-pumping future that awaits them with Immortan Joe (and I could go on all day just about Miller’s ability to populate his world with those ridiculous and amazing names). In addition to the stylistic choices noted above, the movie is also thematically interesting. Miller was smart enough to see that another story about a broken man, a lone warrior haunted by his past, searching for redemption through violence, has been done before about a million times (some of those times by Miller himself), and that it would be infinitely more interesting to do something else for this movie. Granted, Max’s tortured past does feature in the movie, and Furiosa herself jumps on the bandwagon as the tough heroine, haunted by her past, and hits the nail on the head when she tells Max how she’s “looking for redemption” in the wasteland. A bunch of outcasts looking for redemption—not exactly re-inventing the wheel, but I give that a pass in the midst of all the other great shit going on. Namely, the fact that Miller doesn’t dwell on this redemption stuff too much—the film is too fast for that, and these people have to keep moving to survive. This film’s feminist cred comes, not from Miller bending over backwards in some contorted, strained, patronizing kind of dude-feminism gesture like giving us a single strong female character to kick a guy in the nuts (although I think that maybe happens in this movie? I don’t remember), but from being a guy who isn’t going to go out of his way to ignore the unavoidable feminist tropes inherent in any story about a future dystopian wasteland where the forces of law and order have evaporated. I think that in this day and age, it’s just utterly believable to see that in a setting like this, there would be some despotic tyrant withholding resources for the people and keeping women as slaves, obsessing over family bloodlines, etc, and that this is an inherently shocking and repugnant thing to see. The motivations of these backwards, mutated, hateful men are not entirely out of step with the kind of hateful dehumanization that we see in the world around us. (Though, actually, one of my criticisms of the movie is its dichotomy of good looks, which is unfortunately not very progressive. Namely, the bad guys are all contorted, grotesque mutants, and the good guys are all beautiful. The bad guy who becomes a good guy—Nux—has a couple little bumps on his shoulder, but even those are made endearing, given little cute nicknames “Larry and Barry”. And Furiosa’s prosthetic hand isn’t presented as a mutation, but as an accident, and one that is augmented with a really cool prosthetic. It doesn’t make her compromised, it makes her stoic and badass. The toxic radiation, or whatever the excuse was for making Immortan Joe and his kin reliant on breathing masks and vacuum sealed chest armour, kind of comes off as a punishment by God [actually by Miller] for their inherent wickedness, and the virtue of the good guys, from Max on, lies in their biological/genetic “purity” in this tainted wasteland. I dunno about you, but that makes me crinkle my nose a bit, hey?) As amazing as all of this feminist stuff is, it’s important to keep in mind that this is still a movie based on the ole chestnut: loner outlaw hero (embodied by a man, naturally), only looking out for himself, is reluctantly won over to helping the official hero to promote the values of the community (embodied by women, naturally), because we all know—the outlaw hero, the community itself, the audience itself—that the official hero can’t do it without the outlaw hero. Why not? Because that’s the movies, stupid! So in this case, you could be cynical and say that this “breath of fresh air,” this “completely new take on a masculine form completely shattered by modern feminist tropes,” etc, is actually just the same old male-based Hollywood Western gone over ad nauseum by myself (via Robert Ray and others), with the incredibly stunning advancement of putting a strong female character in the role of the “official hero”instead of the man. That’s it—instead of an official man trying to convince an outlaw man to help the community (women), it’s an official woman relying on the help of an outlaw man. But even that dismissive summary skips some of the crucial ways that this film differs, namely, that even though Max’s reasons for suddenly deciding to stay with them (haunted by ghosts), is a bit precarious, and even though that final moment between Max and Furiosa, where they nod at each other as Furiosa joins the community and Max disappears into the sunset is a bit self-consciously archetypal, the film overall doesn’t make too much out of the gender divide. Furiosa is not Jimmy Stewart in Liberty Valance, quivering in his apron while John Wayne shoots Lee Marvin for him and saves his skin. By the end of the movie, it’s plainly obvious that Furiosa saved the day as much as Max, and that Max needed them every bit as much as they needed him. And this is where this film steps beyond the restrictions of Hollywood Western mythology. Even though Max leaves the community at the end, even though he cannot stay (probably for franchise potential as much as any narrative reason), I got the feeling that he was much more invested in that community than other outlaw heroes. He really gained something from that experience, something that will help him to survive in the wasteland. He actually maybe got his redemption, unlike most cowboy heroes who seem condemned to that sisyphian cycle of continually riding into the sunset to the next town, to the next school marm, to the next band of cattle rustlers. Whatever happens next in this franchise, I really get a sense at the end of this movie that Max’s search could be done if we want it to be, that he might actually have found peace.
3) The movie has a small character called Doof Warrior whose only job is to stand on top of a moving truck playing nu-metal on a crazy modded-out electric guitar with a flame thrower in it. If that doesn’t get the bros in the theatre seats, I don’t know what will!