or: Nowhere and Back Again
Max Rockatansky is back after thirty years, leaving behind both the Thunderdome and Mel Gibson’s face to take up residence along Fury Road. But while all the promotional materials still have him officially billed as Mad, this post-millennial Max is less cop-turned-vigilante and more lizard-eating drifter. Gone is his no-mercy, black leather battle-gear, replaced with earthy layers of comfortable canvas and cotton. (And possibly some cashmere underneath; hard to tell.) Gone is his sawed-off, double-barrel, low-slung intimidator and in its place is a Glock 17. (Not exactly the kind of firepower you’d want to fight off a marauding albino death-cult pursuing you from Australia to Namibia and back in supercharged monster trucks.) Gone is steely-eyed, rock-jawed retribution and instead there is a lot of general running for the border. In fact, aside from frequent phantasmagorical familial flashbacks, there’s little mad at all about this current incarnation which, in comparison, kinda makes him Mild Max.
Make no mistake: George Miller’s traveling BDSM roadshow returns in a huge way with never-before-seen man-on-man-on-machine mayhem and bone-shattering vehicular carnage. But through most of the uncivilized exercise, it’s the pointed character of Furiosa who exhibits all the madness in their drive for survival. Max, meanwhile, does a lot of getting captured (twice, actually, in the first five minutes), squinting, running, distrusting and taciturning. He shows brief flashes of martial prowess now and again, but too often is found on the periphery of the action rather than being its primary instigator. For most of the film, he is: suspended in a basket; traveling across Africa as a hood ornament; sleeping; pointlessly refusing to divulge his name; hugging it out with a large tree; staring at the horizon; sitting down; hiding; and fainting from a crossbow bolt to the hand. And then occasionally he’ll wander offscreen to kill some people. This is a violent, high-octane (yet curiously bloodless) action extravaganza built around a titular hero who seems content to take a back seat to Furiosa, and a disillusioned defector, and five fashion models wrapped in tactical taffeta — one of whom happens to be pregnant. All of these non-Max people have to, at some point, take up the slack in the action department for the slowed warrior.
Furiosa, incidentally, is played with appropriate pathos, anger and literal grease paint by a one-armed Charlize Theron. (Unclear if her sacrifice was worth it, but Hollywood is doing wonderful things these days with plastic surgery. A little Botox, maybe a little Miracle-Gro, she should be ready next year to hoist that Oscar for Best Mad Max in a Mad Max Movie.) But in the film, her character’s metal arm is the most inscrutable post-apocalyptic appendage since Baal in Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn. Her prosthesis is so strong it can easily hang a hunky, hapless hero upside-down off a speeding War Rig for what seems like miles; so dexterous it can rapidly secure a conveniently available pipe wrench to the War Rig’s steering column; so substantial it can punch opponents into unconsciousness; so precisely calibrated it can stabilize binoculars at eye-level without crushing them or Furiosa’s orbital sockets; and so stable it can serve as a mobile bench rest, enabling her to blind a pursuer with shattered-spotlight shrapnel at 1,000 yards. Yet, despite this miraculous mechanical ability, the arm can also drop lifelessly into the sand when dramatically necessary for it’s also exceptionally easy to detach, thanks to its breakaway shoulder strap. Fortunately, none of the bad guys are bright enough to remember it has that feature.
All of this enraged estrogen in the form of women struggling to not be “things” by battling unchecked testosterone across hundreds of miles of cruel desert has led many to label Mad Max: Fury Road as feminist. At first glance this is understandable, given the male hero’s relatively casual attempts (whenever he’s not being incapacitated or uncooperative) to aid their desperate cause; but, in reality, the idea is absurd. The sisters aren’t doin’ it for themselves; they’re running for their lives from literal monsters. Their grotesque captor, “Joe”, the whey-faced psycho mutant with gratuitously transparent armor, is a cross between Bane’s crazy uncle and a cephalopod. His presumed cousins who join the pursuit are: the ostensible mayor of Gas Town, a Mos Eisley escapee complete with metal nose and elephantiasis (oh, and chained nipple rings—because, why not?); and The Bullet Farmer, a Pattonesque senior citizen sporting dentures made with actual removable bullets (because, again, why not?). This triumvirate leads a band of wild-eyed, screeching maniac warriors spurred on by a rolling, four-place timpani section that is fronted by a fettered, sightless, lead guitarist shredding the latest in custom, double-necked, flame-throwing axes. Running from these circus demons is not a feminist cause; it’s a demonstration of basic sanity.
In their quest to preserve humanity—or womanity for those who insist—Furiosa, her fugitives, and the semi-reluctant Max speed toward a mysterious oasis destination only to finally get to where it isn’t—as explained by a shrieking naked woman perched atop a derrick—and then speed back to the very place from which they escaped. Why? Because they’re stickin’ it to The Man, that’s why. All the while, they are chased and attacked by scores of nasty, screaming death machines (the kind drawn by twelve-year-olds in the margins of their books during 6th period math), until Furiosa—not Max, naturally—manages to kill Joe by ripping off his face. You go, grrl!
In the final shot, as Furiosa takes her place of prominence among newly-freed slaves, Max, an impassive look returning to his face, wanders off through a crowd of filthy unfortunates. His one instinct: survive, sure, but let’s not get all crazy about it.