Directed by: George Miller
Starring: Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byron, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton, Zoe Kravitz
Rated: R for intense sequences of violence throughout, and for disturbing images
George Miller returns to his early work by bringing us a new Mad Max movie: “Mad Max: Fury Road.” It’s a loose sequel to the three films he made between 1979 and 1985 (he’s since helmed several children’s movies), now with Tom Hardy in the titular role instead of Mel Gibson. In many ways, “Fury Road” is what we expect from a Mad Max movie: wild and startling stunts and vehicles, with strangely-costumed characters battling in a huge, desert wasteland.
It’s something of a bait-and-switch, though: the previews lead us to expect yet another testosterone-addled, scantily-clad-women-featuring, post-apocalyptic action movie, but that isn’t what we get. It’s definitely a post-apocalyptic action movie, and some of the women are scantily clad, but it’s far from testosterone-addled and is thoroughly subversive. This is a movie where the major protagonists are women, working together to escape an ugly, dangerous world for an idyllic one.
At their helm is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), one of several captains in the fleet of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byron). In the desert wasteland, Joe has power because he has water, pumped up from deep below the earth. Furiosa has been planning an escape for a long time, and when she goes, she takes Joe’s harem of breeding wives with her. Max joins the group almost by accident – he escapes the clutches of Joe’s War Boys and winds up throwing in with the women, at first out of expediency, then because he understands their fight. The enormous army Joe sends after them turns the film into a series of car chases. Of course, because this is a Mad Max movie, the cars are bizarre, cobbled-together monnstrosities with spikes, and the weapons include everything from explosive spears to articulated buzzsaws.
One thing that makes the spectacle even more impressive is knowing Miller insists on practical effects wherever possible, so all of those cars really exist – including the huge rig covered in speakers and featuring a bungee-jumping musician whose guitar is also a flame thrower. No, seriously.
Where the film becomes subversive is in the things it lacks. Furiosa’s left arm was amputated below the elbow at some point – nobody even asks why. We don’t get backstories for any of the characters, really, and the film is low on dialog in general. It also is free of the sexist women-as-décor we’ve come to expect from big action films – when Max finds the wives washing off in fresh water, it’s not their bodies he stares at, it’s the clean water they have, splashing luxuriantly on the ground in slow-mo close-up. There’s no discussion about whether the wives can help or not when the fighting starts, because there’s no time. It’s fight or die, and everybody pitches in because they all want to survive.
The film does have a whole lot of violence – it certainly earns its R rating – but most of the truly distressing material is either off-screen or implied. The War Boys are referred to as having a “half life,” and they give affectionate names to the cancerous tumors they develop. Joe’s wives aren’t his willingly, and when we first really see them, they’re cutting off chains and chastity belts. The people we see are all filthy, desperate survivors in one way or another. We never hear what, exactly, happened to the world – but we do see an endless salt flat that is strongly implied to once have been the ocean.
If violence is not your thing, “Mad Max: Fury Road” is probably also not your thing. Likewise, if you want a film with plenty of dialog to hand-hold you through its plot, it is not for you. If, however, you want to see actual strong, interesting characters who happen to be female, do not miss it. If you want a movie where a man and a woman work together to fight for what’s right without so much as a hint of mushiness or sexual tension, do not miss it. If the casual sexism of most Hollywood flicks upsets you, this is a film you have to see.