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Thirty years ago, my local cinema ran double bills of Mad Max & Mad Max 2 every weekend for several months. I walked a couple of miles in each direction enough times that I can still recite chunks of the dialogue from both movies. It hadn’t been long since they’d taken off my articulated cast and downgraded me to one stick instead of two crutches, and a bad ass road warrior with a wonky leg was the hero I needed to see. Max Rockatansky hobbled into my life at just the right moment, and I’ve modelled …. none …. of my life on his example, a failure which I attribute entirely to the inexplicable lack of apocalypses to give me the context in which I could drive over all the obstacles. I blame the lack of a cosmic apocalypse for the fact that I didn’t pass my driving test until 2006; I just know I’d have passed it first time if I’d been taking the test in a post-atomic wasteland.
Which is by way of saying that I strolled into Mad Max: Fury Road with a bit of baggage. Fury Road was going to need to be amazing to live up to the accumulated nostalgia of the originals (as, for example, Beyond Thunderdome didn’t).
If I’m honest, I doubt that even being in the movie myself would have lived up to the way I felt about the movies as a newly minted gimp looking for something to feel good about. You can’t be young again, even if you can be immature forever. So I’m going to try not to measure Fury Road against that impossible baseline.
To get the obvious bit out of the way, Fury Road looks like George Miller has spent the 34 years since Mad Max 2 wishing he’d had the money to do a chase scene properly. If you liked that bit of Mad Max 2, you’re going to love Fury Road. On the one hand, it’s got even more lunatic vehicles than all the other three movies put together, and on the other hand, they get banged into each other in even more lunatic ways than, well, anything else I’ve seen in a cinema. And when I say even more lunatic vehicles, I mean that every way I can mean it; there are a lot more vehicles, and they are much more over the top. There’s one truck which has every surviving speaker and amplifier in the world in the middle, four loons with bass drums on the back, and an even bigger loon with a double-barrelled electric guitar up front, none of it with any other apparent purpose than to provide music on the go for the rest of the convoy. The guitar, of course, doubles as a flame-thrower. The cars the chases and the action are all everything a fan of Mad Max 2 could ever have asked for.
Is there a tanker truck full of precious cargo which isn’t what it appears to be? Yeah. Are there maniacs with improvised weapons? Yeah. Does the visible economy make any kind of sense at all? No. If Mad Max 2 switched on the post-apocalyptic punk drum machine and Beyond Thunderdome turned the knob to eleven with a knowing grin, Fury Road pulls the knob off the machine, throws it right in your eye and then bolts on a brand new knob bigger than the machine itself, made of skulls and brass and left over weapon parts and no numbers at all, because where they’re going, numbers don’t even matter any more.
If anyone’s got the right to do this, it’s George Miller, because Mad Max 2 pretty much invented the post-apocalyptic aesthetic which countless movies have riffed on ever since; without Mad Max 2, something like the The Book of Eli wouldn’t have known what to look like.
So, it looks amazing and it has chases to die for; is it much of an actual movie underneath all that? Well, yes. There’s a pretty solid plot which gets the characters from A to B and makes at least as much sense as any of the other Max movies, not to mention more sense than the economy of the Wasteland. It stands up as a story, rather than just giving a pretext for what would otherwise be one long violent truck chase.
However, it’s a Mad Max movie more in the story and action than in the way it’s a story about Max. For much of the movie, Max is overshadowed by Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. I’m not sure that Charlize could’ve stolen a movie off Mel Gibson in his prime, but she walks off with this one despite Tom Hardy’s best efforts. I hear there’s been all kinds of Sad Puppies whinging about that, to which I wearily say “Man up.” Furiosa is cool, and the movie needs her to work. Max starts out as a creature of pure reflex survival instincts, and one of the two big themes in the movie is how he gradually becomes something more. Which means that we need a proper hero to get things on the move, both to give the story some welly and to give Max something to live up to. Furiosa gets that job done with sass to spare.
Is this a feminist action movie? Don’t be stupid. It’s an action movie with cars in it. And, off in the distance somewhere, people. The men are, it’s true, rampaging arseholes, and the society they’ve created is an insane parody of the very worst ideas men have had throughout history for running things to suit themselves. The distance between that and a feminist action movie; well, Fury Road arguably fails the Bechdel test, but even if you want to give it a pass because one named-only-in-the-credits woman has a conversation with another named-only-in-the-credits woman about seeds, it’s still a movie which at best is a) presenting a parodic vision of slavery and oppression and b) shows women doing manly things just as well as men do. The revolution is still some way off, methinks.