Critical buzz can be a dangerous thing because high expectations are generally made to be quashed. This has happened to me so many times I’ve lost count. The most recent example was the independent horror film It Follows, which, while certainly a way above average example of a fright-flick done on the cheap, left me a little disappointed. Blurbs like “the best horror movie of the decade” are hard to take seriously, and indeed, It Follows, for me, despite doing everything right, did not live up to that claim. Few movies could (though I would argue that The Babadook, a similar critical darling, certainly comes close.)
So with all that in mind, nobody is more surprised than I am to find myself typing these words: Mad Max: Fury Road is far and away the best action movie of the past decade. Nothing even comes close.
It’s important to say up front that while I have seen all three of the original Mad Max movies, I was never blown away by them. They have since my initial viewing sometime in my teens faded into obscurity, and any desire to revisit them has been tempered by the awareness that they are not likely to have aged well. The trailers alone are a pretty safe indication of that. Critical reevaluation of the trilogy by better minds than mine have only compounded this fear. What was good at the time, may not be so good now. All of which is to say that I don’t consider myself a big fan of the Mad Max films.
But I’m a major fan of Fury Road.
For months I’ve been excited by the trailers, which promised what was seemingly impossible, and in the back of my mind, I fully expected to be disappointed once I saw the film and realized all the best parts were in the trailer.
Five minutes into the movie, my hair stood on end and stayed that way until the credits rolled. It’s a film that starts with a bang and rarely relents. My muscles were sore from tensing during the seemingly endless action sequences, every single one of which is delivered with such mind-blowingly chaotic finesse, it’s hard to fathom how they were pulled off, particularly when you learn that 90% of the stunts were done by real people (gymnasts and acrobats) and not a computer. The explosions are real. When a car detonates, deteriorates, and fills the frame with flying debris, while actors weave in and out of the shot on poles, it’s all real and happening in-camera. Your eye doesn’t know where to go; your mind struggles to process the sheer amount of madness happening onscreen, and all of it takes place against a beautifully shot apocalyptic landscape. Cinematographer John Seales (who won an Oscar for his work on The English Patient) deserves serious praise for making this wasteland beautiful. It helps that the world in Fury Road is not your typical bleached out landscape, but a study in contrasts. Just as you get accustomed to the deep reds and vibrant yellows, you’re plunged into moody blues (a brief scene in a swamp with “stilt-walkers” remains one of my favorite and completely unexpected moments from the film.)
So, the action is completely off the wall, relentless, and choreographed in such a way that your jaw will be on the floor. It’s an insane combination of art gallery/rock opera/ballet/circus, and it truly has to be seen to be believed. For me, that would be enough to give Fury Road four out of five stars.
It gets a fifth star for delivering something else I didn’t expect: poignancy.
By now you’ve probably heard that some morons out there have decreed that Fury Road tricks men into going to see it, only to subject them to what these fine examples of fuckery have decided (without seeing it) is essentially a femi-nazi propaganda film intended to debase men and celebrate independent women. It emasculates us, these idiots have declared, and forces us to endure what’s ultimately a female-centric action film. We have been duped!
What I didn’t expect and loved was that Fury Road is indeed a female-centric action movie. I know, I know, we’re all fed up of those by now, right? What’s next, Michael Bay doing a remake of Steel Magnolias or The Hours? Puh-leeeaze. Oh wait, those weren’t action movies. Okay then, uh…how about Planet Terror, or…Bad Girls, or…shit, I’m out. Oh, I got one! Alien, Aliens, and…uh, Terminator 2! Those count because they were actually mainstream big budget releases that did well and were critically celebrated and happened to have a strong female character in the almost-lead role.
So, right, you get the point. Stick a woman in a big action movie. Have her not be a complete cardboard character who runs, ducks, screams, and is anything other than a love interest waiting to be rescued by your steroidal action hero, and you instantly get props.
Mad Max: Fury Road goes wayyy further than that. And it does it without trying to direct attention to itself, pandering, or belittling its intended audience. Tom Hardy might get main billing, but there’s absolutely no question that it’s Charlize Theron’s movie. She’s as tough (and at times tougher) than Max. She’s bitter, haunted, vulnerable, and fierce. Her mission to ferry a quintet of slave-women, or “breeders” across the desert and away from their captor does not rely on Max’s assistance. It would have happened without him. In fact, at times he’s the one who depends on her, and is quite possibly the lesser of the two warriors (witness a notable sequence in which, with three bullets left, he shoots at a target and misses twice, only for Theron’s character to prop the rifle on his shoulder and hit the target first time.)
At first, the women being taken to safety appear as Victoria Secret models, scantily clad and washing themselves off with a hose. This is misdirection, the film’s cheeky way of saying “we know how this looks, but just wait.” A few seconds later, Max washes blood off his face, not with water, but with mother’s milk. From there, it becomes clear that the movie is about a world blown to shit and poisoned by men who have taken what they want and declared themselves the inheritors. Women have been reduced to baby-makers, controlled by these monsters. “We are not things!” screams a woman to her enslaver. Later we see one of the “breeders” cut a chastity belt off with a pair of bolt cutters before glaring at Max, the only guy in the scene. The same character, pregnant, bares her belly in defiance from the door of the vehicle being attacked, which confuses every attacker in the scene, all of them male. Throughout the film, women are associated with beauty and strength, the true bearers of the power, while the men are largely single-minded, violent, and mad. It’s a wonderful reversal of how women are generally depicted in these kinds of films. That it’s here, in this film, is even better. The whole world will go to see Mad Max because, yes, it’s an action movie. What you can’t say about it, no matter how the trailer makes it look, is that it’s a mindless one. It’s a lunatic orchestra of everything we go to movies hoping to see. It’s also, astoundingly, a quiet reminder of the things we didn’t know we needed to see, and should already have known.
A few stray observations:
* The guitar-wielding psycho and the drummers atop the truck/amp stack may be my favorite part of any film ever. Those dudes need their own spinoff.
*It was only afterward that I read that the pole-mutants are actually Cirque du Soleil performers. Knowing they did all that insane shit without safety nets/cables only makes the spectacle of what was accomplished during those sequences only more mind-boggling.
*I want a hedgehog car.
*Couldn’t help but think of Duran Duran during the War-Boy’s chant near the beginning of the film.
*Tom Hardy needs to start choosing roles in which he is *not* required to wear a mask.
*A more apt title for the film would have been Mad Maxine. And if rumors are to be believed, the next film will focus even more on Charlize Theron’s character. That to me, is a smart move, and I’ll be there, front and center.