happy 40th birthday, neal!
what i watched last week

mad max: fury road (george miller, 2015)

There are a few reasons why Mad Max: Fury Road feels familiar. First, it’s the fourth entry in a continuing series. Second, earlier editions were influential, such that many inferior copycats were made over the years. (There is even a Wikipedia page titled “Mad Max series legacy and influence in popular culture”.) And by now, we’ve become used to expensive summer action pictures.

So yes, it is safe to say if you liked the earlier Mad Max movies, you will like Fury Road. Even though it has been 30 years since George Miller gave us a Mad Max movie, he hasn’t lost his talent or his desire to put something great onto the screen.

And it is an excellent effort in the context of the series, at least the equal of The Road Warrior, and far better than Beyond Thunderdome. Which, for those of us who loved past entries, means we’re pretty much guaranteed a good time. (A few years ago, I listed The Road Warrior as the 51st-best movie of all time, so you know where I’m coming from.)

The most notable thing about Fury Road is that many of the things that make it a clear counterpart to the earlier films is also what sets it apart from other action movies in 2015. As noted on the IMDB, “Over 80% of the effects seen in the film are real practical effects, stunts, make-up and sets.” In recent years, the stuff that amazes generally comes from the astounding things that can be done digitally. Fury Road goes back to a different time, one that seems more “human”. Watching Mad Max: Fury Road is like checking out an old silent Buster Keaton feature or a Jackie Chan HK film. Real people are actually doing these things. Add to this the care with which Miller presents the action, and you have a movie that has rarely, if ever, been topped for its genre.

You could say that the film is nothing but one long car chase, and you wouldn't be too far off, although I admit I thought there would be even more action. I understand the argument that Fury Road may be near perfect, but it’s still just a near-perfect car chase movie. I think the adrenaline rush of the film squashes such complaints, but your mileage may vary.

There is one other notable point to be made regarding the most obvious difference between this film and the prior Max movies. Charlize Theron plays a female version of Max, and she is so good, and her part is so integral, that the only reason “Mad Max” appears in the title is for brand recognition. This isn't the story of Max and his sidekick, it’s the story of two people fighting (mostly) in tandem. Theron’s Imperator Furiosa is actually more important to what plot there is than is Max. This led to the remarkably absurd article by Aaron Clarey, “Why You Should Not Go See ‘Mad Max: Feminist Road’”:

This is the vehicle by which they are guaranteed to force a lecture on feminism down your throat. This is the Trojan Horse feminists and Hollywood leftists will use to (vainly) insist on the trope women are equal to men in all things, including physique, strength, and logic. And this is the subterfuge they will use to blur the lines between masculinity and femininity, further ruining women for men, and men for women.

So do yourself and all men across the world a favor. Not only REFUSE to see the movie, but spread the word to as many men as possible.

Clarey’s paranoid position strikes a chord with some men, I’m sure. But his screed actually falls into the hole he argues against, for I’ve read more discussion of feminism and Fury Road inspired by his broadside than I have from any other source. (An update at the website on which the original article appeared claimed, “Our Call To Boycott Mad Max Movie Spurs Avalanche Of Mainstream Media Anger”.) If he was worried that we might look at Fury Road through a feminist perspective, well, he has helped that process along.

How feminist is Fury Road? There is no one kind of feminism, and any simplistic response to the question will refuse to acknowledge the breadth of feminist thinking. Yes, Imperator Furiosa is the match of Max Rockatansky. Yes, Charlize Theron is the match of Tom Hardy. And I admit, many of my favorite female characters are ones that kick ass (Buffy, Starbuck). But that taste preference is limiting in that too often “kick ass” means “acts like a man”, which shouldn’t be the only point. Furiosa may be remembered as important a film character as those played by Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, or Sigourney Weaver in the Alien movies, and that’s a fine thing (and Theron is good enough that she deserves to be mentioned along with those others). But for the most part, Furiosa can be described as a woman who kicks ass as well as a man.

There are some plot details that change my simplification a bit ... for instance, Furiosa is trying to save sex slaves. But I would argue that plot details are more irrelevant in a movie like this than is the norm, because no plot point works as anything other than a breather between action scenes. One reason Beyond Thunderdome was a letdown was that it had too much plot.

Judged as an action movie, as part of the Mad Max franchise, which is how I prefer to judge it, Mad Max: Fury Road is at least as good as The Road Warrior. I gave that movie 10/10, so you know what I’m giving Fury Road. 10/10. Best companion piece is obviously The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max 2).

Postscript: we saw Fury Road on the first night (Thursday). I hadn’t done the “gotta go to the first showing” thing since On the Road two years ago. Apparently, I have a thing for movies with the word “road” in the title.

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