First published by EyeforFilm
‘Mad’ Max Rockatansky has had several incarnations, all unified by the (then) winning charisma of a fresh-faced Mel Gibson, by the mad directing skills and archetype-pimping rides of George Miller, and by some practical stuntwork whose palpably high risks only added to the visceral intensity of the action. In Mad Max (1979), he was a rev-head cop driven to vengeance against marauding road gangs in a collapsing society. In Mad Max 2 (1981), he was a broken, selfish-seeming escort to the last remnant of civilisation in a fuel-depleted future that defined a new and influential ‘post-apocalyptic’ subgenre. Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) played like a camp, commercial parody of the second film, with added sentiment, and was the death knell for the series. Except now, three decades later, Max is back, this time played by Tom Hardy.
It is not just the personnel who have changed. For now Max is ‘mad’ not so much because he is still vindictively angry at the murder of his wife and child as because all that time alone in the wastelands, with survival his only aim and the ghosts of the dead his only company, has sent our reluctant hero a little over the edge – which is exactly where, after he has chowed down on a two-headed lizard, we see him speed in the opening sequence – and where again, moments later, he will rush shortly after a frantic dash through a mountain tunnel. In one sense Max is not alone – for the whole world has seemingly gone mad too, crippled by post-nuclear mutations, exhausted by deprivations, and ravaged by the (death) cults of personality that have replaced any more civilised notion of culture. There is civilisation of a sort here, in the form of the fortified Citadel where Max finds himself a prisoner and involuntary human ‘blood bag’ – but that city is ruled by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), part of a male dynasty that carefully controls the flow of water, the supply of fuel and the manufacture of bullets.
That such items are even available in any kind of abundance, and are being produced anew rather than being scavenged from old, rapidly dwindling reserves, already points to the possibility of a viable, self-sustaining society – but like Thunderdome‘s Bartertown, this is a corrupt, dystopian community. There is one other commodity, rare and valuable, which Joe controls: healthy women and their reproductive powers. To Joe and his equally ailing brothers and sons, fertile women are mere property, to be locked away and traded, or to furnish heirs, or to provide milk.
Entrusted to transport some of these goods to Gastown and the Bullet Farm (the neighbouring townships run by Joe’s brethren), one-armed driver Imperator Furiosa (an outstanding Charlize Theron) decides to flee with her War Rig and its cargo instead, with the combined forces of Joe, his brothers and other local gangs bearing down to stop her. Along with the diseased, death-obsessed ‘War Boy’ named Nux (Nicholas Hoult) to whom he has become bonded by blood, Max finds himself choosing a side and taking a stand for a better future.
All the Mad Max sequels show their protagonist being reluctantly converted to the cause of some higher human good, until he eventually leads a furious vehicular flight against overwhelming odds, and finally, having furthered the cause of civilisation, returns to his solitary nomadic existence in the wastelands. Mad Max: Fury Road is different only in its details – but those details are certainly significant. For a start, rather than building slowly up to its climax, this film cuts right to the chase, and plays like a near two-hour version of the armed rig pursuit at the end of Mad Max 2. In order to keep this juggernaut running, Miller keeps stoking the fires with shovel-loads of carnivalesque crazy: gravity-defying stunts, larger-than-life caricatures and the occasional splash of ropily ‘hyperreal’ CGI.
If Joe’s cancerous War Boys literally worship the god ‘V8’, then the film too fetishises its many customised vehicles, including several spiky cameos from Peter Weir’s The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), and a rolling speaker-tower behemoth crewed by a band of drummers and a bungee-strapped guitarist whose amped-up instrument has a flame thrower attached to its neck for good measure. Baroque-n-roll does not begin to describe the petrol-headed delirium on offer here. Likewise the villains, with names like Rictus Erectus and the People Eater, are cartoonish grotesques in punked-up, peacockish bondage gear. Many films (from The Seventh Seal to The Desert) have taken a minimal approach to apocalyptic times, showing a drab, colourless world that ends with a whimper – but Miller’s retrofuturist visions go instead for the bang of all-out mad maximalism.
And then there are the stunts. If the previous Mad Max films set the benchmark for high-octane, mid-road mayhem, then Fury Road raises it spectacularly, with the action taking place in, on, around and over vehicles that barrel at tremendous speed through desert, canyons, marshlands and even an electric sandstorm. This is a furiously paced dash that, like any rollercoaster ride, eventually returns to its starting point to let the giddy passengers off – but in all this fuel-injected forward thrust there is also a newly progressive attitude to gender that drives head-on into the medieval backwardness of Joe’s patriarchal empire.
In the original Mad Max, the policeman’s wife is ‘fridged’ – murdered as a plot mechanism to motor Max’s vengeful rampage. Near the beginning of the first sequel, another female character is similarly raped and murdered to galvanise Max into action – but there is also room for Virginia Hey’s Warrior Woman, who holds her own, fights as an equal alongside Max, and is his moral superior. In Beyond Thunderdome, Bartertown is run by Tina Turner’s Aunty Entity, who embodies a form of negative matriarchy (and poses a real threat to Max’s survival). In other words, women have steadily assumed a more prominent part in the series as agents rather than mere patients in all the unfolding action. Yet none of these films has featured a female character quite as strong – or indeed as developed in the writing – as Furiosa, allowing Theron to sideline and outshine her mumbling co-star. No surprise that a sequel focusing on her character (and perhaps on the gaps in her backstory) has already been mooted by Miller.
Born into a matriarchy yet abducted and branded as Joe’s property, Furiosa has somehow elevated herself to a military rank and a position of command over men – all the while secretly plotting her escape with the seeds for a new society. Not only is she Max’s feminine double – working with a limb injury as he has since the original film (not that his limp is much accentuated here), expertly leading a chase in a truck that closely resembles the one Max drove in the first sequel, and even rigging her vehicle with security features (as he did in Mad Max 2) to ensure that no-one else can drive it – but as Furiosa appropriates for herself the rôle that Max would ordinarily take, he in turn is feminised, and (at least initially) given the part of victim rather than aggressor. So in the opening sequence he too is abducted, prepared for branding as property, and hooked up to be bled out for transfusion, in a clear male analogy to all the women we see being milked like cows. Our literally anaemic hero spends most of the first chase sequence bound and immobilised, a passive witness to the action that Furiosa alone has instigated.
Once Max has escaped his captivity, he joins Furiosa, but very much riding shotgun on a journey where Furiosa is in the driving seat. “Who killed the world?” is a question repeatedly posed by Furiosa and her fellow women – and the implicit answer is men. For Furiosa is leading a resistance to the errant patriarchy that brought on the apocalypse and continues to abuse and enslave women, and it is only after Max has got on board with her and proven his worth that she will declare him “reliable”, and recognise him as an ally to her (feminist) aims. In a tale of perverted male bloodlines and forward-thinking female genealogies, Max becomes a true convert to progressive gender politics, in the end freely giving the blood that earlier he had ‘donated’ only under duress (and for a much lesser cause), as a vital, redemptive investment in a better tomorrow. Together, he and Furiosa represent a beacon of respectful collaboration between the sexes, as well as an alternative to the Citadel’s rampant, exploitative capitalism – all of which feels revolutionary in a big-budget blockbuster aimed at the mainstream. Perhaps, in this mix of explosive action, manic mythopoeia and radical politics, there is hope for the future after all.