Mad Max: Fury Road Review: The Drive of Their Lives

It’s been awhile since the Mad Max franchise did much of a killing at the box office. The original Mad Max premiered all the way back in 1979 and the third in the franchise, Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome, debuted in 1985. Thus an entire generation of moviegoers, me included, impressed by the endless destruction wrought by Marvel and heart-pounding car chases in The Fast and Furious series, have missed out on Mad Max.

Director George Miller’s reboot, Mad Max: Fury Road, begins with the distinct sound of a revved engine, the haunting voice of a lost child and the sweeping vista of a lonely man, Max (played by Tom Hardy), in a barren desert. Society has collapsed, thirsty for water and oil. “I am the one who runs from the living and the dead,” Max says in a voiceover. Max can’t run (or drive) fast enough, as he is captured by the War Boys, a cult of pale, dying boys who follow their tyrannical leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) into battle. While Max is used as blood bag, the real action of the film takes off. One of Immortan Joe’s warriors, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), drives a War Rig, an armored convoy of fuel, off course, seeking to defect with Immortan Joe’s Five Wives, women specially chosen to bear his children. Immortan Joe leads his War Boys in bloodthirsty pursuit.

If all this sounds extremely confusing, don’t worry. Fury Road, which opened on Friday nationwide, simplifies as it rides on. Max manages to escape and join forces with Furiosa. The visual pleasure of the film reveals itself in a couple of incredible set pieces, mesmerizing car chases full of stunts and fascinating details. The Lost Boys don’t wear seat belts; they chain themselves to their cars. One of the trucks that Immortan Joe leads into battle carries The Doof Warrior (Australian musician Iota), who slams on a flame-throwing electric guitar. As if this isn’t enough fun for the audience, Miller throws in a sandstorm, some biker gangs and acrobatics that fit right into the Cirque du Soleil.

The action sequences of Fury Road are well worth seeing it in theaters, even if the pulsing score makes it difficult to sometimes hear the film’s dialogue. But the real strength of Fury Road is that it is unapologetically feminist. Immortan Joe shouts throughout that his Five Wives belong to him. He views them as vessels for carrying children. One of the pregnant wives, played by Rosie Huntington Whitley, who you may remember from the third very sexist Transformers movie, hisses “we are not things.” Miller’s camera doesn’t objectify the women or force them into unnecessary stages of half-nudity; instead he empowers them.

The hero of Fury Road isn’t really Max at all. Charlize Theron’s Furiosa spends most of the movie in the driver’s seat, literally and figuratively.  When Max tries to drive away with Furiosa’s War Rig, the vehicle stops moving; it requires a special pass-code that only Furiosa knows. The two eventually find safe haven with a group of elderly women that evoke the Ancient Greek myth of the Amazons. These women are armed to defend themselves, yet remain hopeful; one carries around a bag seeds and attempts to plant them in the polluted soil. None take hold, but the desired germination of life stands in strong contrast to the rapes that have impregnated a few of The Five Wives.

Fury Road shines in its subtle depictions of the impact feminism can have on men as well. One of the secondary characters depicted in the movie, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a member of the War Boys begins the film as a hyper-masculine driver who represents, in the words of Miller, “the young men who go to war with the sense that they are immortal.”  He worships Immortan Joe, as he believes his devotion to him will gain him entry to Valhalla, heaven for warriors. “Oh what a day. What a lovely day,” he shouts in a moment that could belong in an ISIS propaganda video luring recruits to jihadism. But Nux’s character arc leads him to grow disenchanted with Immortan Joe, join Max and Furiosa, and, in the process, confront his mortality as he faces cancerous tumors. In a movie that is generally devoid of romantic or emotional relationships, Nux’s story ends up being pretty touching.

It’s heartening and encouraging to watch actors such as Tom Hardy take a backseat to the well-deserved heroics of female stars.  In last year’s A Million Ways to Die in the West, Charlize Theron spends a few scenes teaching a foolish Seth MacFarlane how to shoot a gun, and yet MacFarlane had climactic fight scene practically all to himself. In one of  Fury Road’s best moments, however, Hardy grabs a high-powered gun with only a few bullets left and takes aim at one of Immortan Joe’s henchman. Down to one bullet after missing wildly, Max doesn’t save the day. He hands the gun to Theron and, even if it’s in a post-apocalyptic world, I’ll call that progress.

Warner Bros. Pictures
Mad Max: Fury Road is rated R for intense sequences of violence throughout and for disturbing images.