“Mad Max: Fury Road” Boasts Stupendous Action, Even Better Feminism

Mad Max is a franchise that’s never enjoyed a #1 opening in America, and yet is known by virtually every moviegoer. In a genre focused on nuclear war and bomb shelters, the 80s trilogy posed a different apocalypse – one caused by shortages of gas, water, and food. It gave the diminishing post-apocalypse genre new life as the world phased away from the Cold War.

Thirty years since its last entry, Max Rockatansky, a former highway patrol officer just trying to survive in the wasteland, is now played by Tom Hardy instead of an upstart Mel Gibson. His world is still dominated by roving gangs of stunt drivers, bikers, and psychopaths. He encounters Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and a band of women she’s saving from a post-apocalyptic dictator. If you’ve seen any of the trailers for Mad Max: Fury Road, you’ve probably thought to yourself: there’s no way they can keep that energy up for two hours.

Here’s the stunner: those trailers don’t approach the sheer intensity and excitement of the film as a whole. Mad Max: Fury Road is a two hour chase scene of rare energy and raw emotion. It is among the best action movies ever dreamed up. A glance across my movie lists of the last several years makes me confident in saying it’s the best pure action experience since 2009’s Avatar. More importantly, it’s the most tailor-made to see on the big-screen.

The danger in action movies today is that they’re all so similar. Endless aliens/robots/orcs stream straight into our superhero’s fists as buildings collapse, the earth shatters, and the camera spins around in a way no real cameraman ever could. It’s all one glorious video game cutscene. I love cutscenes, but for two hours at a time every week, it can begin to wear. The most brilliant decision in Mad Max: Fury Road is that nearly everything you see is done by a real stunt driver in a real car. CGI adds extra bodies getting thrown around, some crazy lightning/tornado/dust storms, and a more colorful wasteland in general, but the core shots are always practical. The insane stunts you’re watching are real.

This gives every piece of action a weight, and it gives the viewer a sense of geography. Quick, what’s the layout of Sokovia in Avengers: Age of Ultron? Are characters a block away from each other or on opposite sides of the city? Who knows? Yet in Mad Max: Fury Road, I know where every character is and how they’ll come into conflict. I know this for dozens of cars going 60 mph in a desert with no landmarks. I can anticipate the next steps in a chaotic fight, which lets the movie be more unpredictable in how those steps play out. That’s what action choreography is all about: playing with our expectations and then surpassing them.

Mad Max: Fury Road boasts some of the most audacious and awe-inspiring stunt choreography since…well, maybe ever. What it pulls off is usually achieved in a film for 5 minutes at a time and then listed as one of the greatest chase scenes ever, except Mad Max pulls it off for 70 or 80 minutes in a 2 hour movie. Moreover, director George Miller knows how to convey plot and emotion inside the evolving choreography of hunter and prey. The story doesn’t stop to let the chase happen like a set piece; the story ramps up and tightens the screws right alongside the action.

Every new action scene delivers new consequences, fresh stunt choreography, and a surprisingly diverse array of settings for a desert. In fact, the majority of the action sequences are three-way fights, which are often avoided on film today because of the planning and precision that’s required in choreographing, filming, and editing them.

Mad Max: Fury Road is also about something crucial:

“We are not things,” shouts a woman early in the film. “We are not things!” The women Furiosa has saved are “breeders,” kept trapped by the men in one dictatorship to give them sons. Despite his name being in the title, Max is not the film’s lead. He’s sidekick to someone else’s adventure. Furiosa is the lead, and she’s transporting these women to safety. Once Max and Furiosa come together, this is her film through and through. If that upsets you, my only question is why? Any other hero who lasts long enough in our fiction ends up appearing in another hero’s story.

Charlize Theron is exceptionally good as Furiosa and she’s every bit Tom Hardy’s equal in the complexity of her fight choreography. Women are the action heroes in this film, and Mad Max: Fury Road makes no bones about it. If that bothers you, then you should absolutely see this movie. You might realize women being equal partners has no ill effect on a movie’s quality. In fact, not limiting your cast to 50% of the population effectively doubles the number of quality actors you have to choose from. It makes your film better.

If you have no problem with women being equal, then you should absolutely see this movie, too. Simply put, it’s an action masterpiece that takes the best lessons from the past three decades of action filmmaking, chase scenes, and fight choreography and chucks them in a pot with some unique and original concepts that only director George Miller could have imagined.

The 3-D, though converted in post-production (as opposed to being filmed with 3D cameras), is also fantastic. Warner Bros. has lapped the field when it comes to post-converted 3D. You’re still giving up a little bit of detail from the 2D, but I love it when 3D is used as an additional artistic tool and not just as a gimmick. Here, the 3D is focused on the atmosphere and landscape that play host to the action. It’s used best during emotional moments or calms amidst the storm, creating a more fully realized world for viewers to buy into. If you want to feel like dust and carburetors are being hurled at your eye, Mad Max: Fury Road avoids that for all but one shot. If you want 3D that services the story and its themes beautifully, this is some of the best you’ll find.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does Mad Max: Fury Road have more than one woman in it?

Yes, Charlize Theron plays the film’s main character, Imperator Furiosa. Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, and Courtney Eaton play the five escaping “wives.” There are at least eight other important heroic roles played by women in the film. Across the entire film, our heroes number 14 women and 2 men.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes. The overwhelming majority of the movie’s dialogue belongs to women.

3. About something other than a man?

All the time. The only times men are discussed are because they’re trying to escape one or because women have to decide if a particular man is trustworthy. They are never discussed romantically.

Mad Max: Fury Road passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors, but the Bechdel Test is only a tool of measure. It’s not a complete discussion or judgment in and of itself.

What’s just as important as these three questions is how the film focuses on its characters. After Max meets Furiosa, every chance the film has to focus on Max’s exploits, it follows hers instead. The most badass thing Max does is handled off-camera. The movie makes absolutely sure that you know who the protagonist is: Furiosa.

It’s true that the “breeders” who are rescued are victims, but it’s important that their savior Furiosa isn’t. This isn’t to say Furiosa hasn’t lost something – we know at least that she’s had to replace her arm with a mechanical one at some point. This could be through being a victim, sure, but that’s never said – given that she’s an admired warrior when we meet her, I assume she lost it doing something pretty impressive to someone else who probably got a lot worse.

Max has also lost his wife and child, and has nightmares about all the other people he couldn’t help. There’s no way the film can avoid the stakes and mythos of the original 1979 Mad Max. This drives Max, and even saves him in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment of pure mythological intervention.

Yet there are women we’ll meet later in the film who live very much by their own rules and become the most admirable bunch in the movie.

Some of the women the film features have been victimized, but unlike certain lazy sequels, their victimization isn’t the point. Their removal from a system that shapes them into victims is the point.

Furiosa and Max’s pursuers are entirely male, but they’re composed almost exclusively of men raised to believe in violence as a method of promotion. The extent to which they’re valued by the leader they serve is their only sense of self-worth. The best ending to their all-too-short lives is to die in his service.

We also get to see a male character removed from that violent patriarchy. Among the two men, his journey is actually more thematically important than Max’s, even if Max gets more screen-time. I won’t say anything else on him for fear of spoilers.

There are one or two details which surprise. The escaping wives are a provocative sight when Max first meets them. What’s most interesting about this is that the film manages to keep them this way throughout the rest of the movie without ever again framing them in a provocative manner. I wonder if defining them in such an evocative way to start and never showing them that way again speaks to gaze – in other words, women can be dressed however they like in a movie without sexualizing that appearance. Just as films can be shot to stress sex appeal, they can also be shot to diminish its importance. If sexualizing our introduction to these women is intentional (and I don’t see how it isn’t), then choosing not to focus on that sexuality again is also intentional.

Simply put, one can see why Men’s Rights organizations are screaming bloody murder over the movie. In fact, I’d say they aren’t scared enough. Mad Max: Fury Road seeks out and takes down every bullshit hypothesis about male dominance they spout.

Their accusations of Mad Max: Fury Road having a feminist agenda are spot on. At one point in the film, the power of feminism (almost literally) lifts people from their lives of systemic abuse and victimhood. Here’s the thing: these things don’t exist in a cultural vacuum. If Mad Max: Fury Road has a feminist agenda and that is so rare an element in an action movie that it must be called out, then one must admit the corollary – that 95% of the other action movies we see have a patriarchal agenda.

In an unending sea of movies about men who commit acts of heroism while women look on, Mad Max: Fury Road is a film that features women committing acts of heroism while men (including those in the audience) look on. That’s beyond important. It’s beyond overdue. Of all the amazing acts that Mad Max: Fury Road pulls off, the most crucial one is being as aggressive about its feminism as James Bond, Die Hard, Transformers, Riddick, and The Expendables are about their patriarchy.

 


 

Are you upset Mad Max: Fury Road is so feminist, or are you thrilled? Are there any other movies that feature this many women as action heroes?


 

Additional Images: Mad Max: Fury Road

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Gabriel Valdez
Gabriel Valdez
Gabriel is a movie critic who's been a campaign manager in Oregon, an investigative reporter in Texas, and a film producer in Massachusetts. His writing was named best North American criticism of 2014 by the Local Media Association. He's assembled a band of writers who focus on social issues in film. They have a home base.