(Warning: here be spoilers.) I don’t know why this Mad Max film is subtitled ‘Fury Road’. No-one cares or remembers what this ‘road’ is, because it’s a journey, not an actual road, and every film in the series has angry characters. What most people will remember as the film’s defining phrase is the lead character’s name, Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron. It’s got multi-syllabic grandeur: an epic double portion of iambs followed by the four-syllable foot called tertius paeon, the stress in the third syllable enhanced by the appropriately ‘feminine’ ending of a falling syllable.
Prosodic deconstruction over: it’s a damn good name. It means ‘furious emperor’, though the Imperator bit is probably her status and title: she’s mostly called Furiosa, but she dominates the film. She’s a top driver, the one entrusted by Citadel boss Immortan Joe to drive out to Gasoline City, run by his brother The People Eater, with the big rig and fuel pod, to pick up more fuel. She’s escorted by a flotilla of severely customised 4×4 vehicles (one hesitates to call them cars) driven by Valhalla-seeking junkies in whiteface and combat trousers who do a lot of pumped-up shrieking and waving of weaponry. But Furiosa takes a detour, the Citadel watchers see that she’s going rogue, and the chase is on, with all of the Citadel’s armaments on wheels tearing after her through the sand routes. They even bring their own musicians, a hardcore version of the musical retinue that every classical emperor had. Gasoline City also sends out a heavily-armed posse, as does The Bullet Farmer, the third brother in the triumvirate of suppliers of life’s essentials in this post-apocalyptic desert.
The real reason for their angry pursuit is not the theft of a rig or the defection of a trusted lieutenant, but the liberation of the five ‘wives’ of Immortan Joe, who all happen to model western fashions in their day jobs. Their costume design is a visual contrast to Furiosa’s shaved-head, sweaty combats, heavily weaponised look, but realism is not a high priority. Their gauzy draperies never seem to get ripped, bloodied or greased with mud, and with all that they go through, that’s a mistake. Everyone else looks filthy apart from them. These starlets – Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Zoe Kravitz produce the strongest performances – do a good enough job at becoming their characters, reluctant breeders of Immortan’s offspring, and thus his property, as he bawls so petulantly. The women race through the desert, heading for the Green Place where Furiosa knows they’ll find sanctuary, but they have a horrible shock when they run into Furiosa’s old tribe, the Vuvulani, and hear what’s been happening in that part of the sands since she was stolen from them as a child.
There’s also a sub-plot to this film, which has been angering the male supremacist film ‘critics’ online. They think that the point of the Mad Max film legacy is to produce films about men who shout a lot about their jacked-up cars and explosions, and to valorise the white male loner with bad dreams and bad hair riding a trusty steed (or rusty car). They also seem to think that Mad Max is American cultural property, when, as any fule kno, he’s Australian, and always has been. They seem unhappy that Max’s plot trajectory and his really good stunts are subordinated to the women’s mission and their control of their rig.
Max (Tom Hardy) first appears getting captured by Immortan’s scouting Warboys, and seems more annoyed about his car being commandeered than his very unpleasant ordeal of being registered as Immortan’s property (on his back, with needles), and a much-needed haircut. Now that we can see his expressions (Hardy does give good grunt), he’s hung upside down to be a blood-sack for one of the Warboys, with his transfusion line refuelling a rather weedy-looking Warboy who needs a booster dose. Max ends up as a figurehead on one of the pursuit vehicles (that’s why he’s wearing the metal muzzle), and, after some seriously clever plotting and fight choreography, becomes no. 2 driver of Furiosa’s rig, the wives having no such skills. Nor, indeed, any apparent desire to learn them.
For the rest of the film Furiosa and Max hold off the pursuing monstrous hordes with one explosion and pursuit gag after another. The sheer inventiveness of the plot, which is essentially a chase from A to B to A, makes superb use of the choices one has with a seemingly unbreakable rig with secret compartments and hiding places. Furiosa and Max scramble all over its outsides as it thunders at top speed through the Namibian desert, and their stunt doubles deserve big typefaced acting credits. The pace of the film, hammered into the viewing experience by a pounding soundtrack, does dip into reflective moments, and some fragments of quiet, but not very many, just enough to catch our breath, do some essential first-aid and bolt-cutting, and then we’re back on the road being chased by another madman with a flaming steering wheel.
What isn’t mentioned very often in the reviews is that Furiosa has a prosthetic arm, since she was born without her lower left arm. I imagine that Theron wore a greenscreen sock over that arm while filming, and they CGId her metallic probing pronglike bionic extension. It’s a magnificent character enhancement, since it is simply part of her. She unstraps its harness when she needs to, and she (or her stuntie) has enough upper body strength to cling to things and use her feet and legs to fight off intruders. She doesn’t need to do a Captain Hook, waving her arm around to make us nervous: her steely gaze and astonishingly fast reactions are quite good enough for that, thank you. She and other characters with bodily difference fit into this landscape perfectly. If the land has been poisoned by catastrophe, then it makes sense that some babies will be born looking different, and they get along with the same or even better chances as anyone else.
The Citadel supplies water and milk, and has some healthy-looking green fields on top of its sandstone stack outcrops, presumably the only source of fresh vegetables for miles. It’s a nurturing place, or it would have been before Immortan took it over and made it his personal fief. There’s a pervasive emphasis on breeding and feeding in the film. He has a harem of lactating wives hooked up to machines in a very comfortable-looking milking parlour. Two wives are pregnant and a baby arrives rather earlier than expected during the action. Max saves Furiosa’s life with his carefully not-discarded transfusion line: nice plotting, Mr Miller. All this feels rather different from what one might have expected from a old-school Mad Max film. The film’s editor is female: the director (her husband) wanted a different perspective on the action, and IMDB claims he said: ‘Because if a guy did it, it would look like every other action movie’. Eve Ensler (author and original performer of the feminist statement play The Vagina Monologues) was apparently consulted on the dialogue and plot, to give balance to a testosterone-rich franchise. Why should men have all the fun riding souped-up motorbikes with screaming wheels? By deliberately balancing how the plot elements might appeal to different people, not just 18-year old boys, Miller has opened up the world of Mad Max to older and newer generations. I saw the first films and was repelled, but I like this one very much indeed. I definitely prefer screaming engines driven by a rock-hard engineer who happens to be a woman who can DO something, rather than a screaming Tina Turner in a miniskirt strutting to no apparent purpose.
* edited slightly to cover up the fact that all my research failed to tell me that this is the fourth film, not the third.