Mad Max: Fury Road is the future of pulp
A cult classic takes the best of the old... and kills the worst125
With the series’ name currently splashed in huge letters over Manhattan’s video billboards, it’s strange to remember just how small the original Mad Max was. Filmed with a handful of cars and extras from a local motorcycle gang, its low-budget realism translated into focused, powerful action sequences that most Hollywood choreography still can’t match. But it’s the sequel, The Road Warrior, that people remember. Director George Miller took the core elements of Mad Max and made everything bigger: biker gangs became futuristic tribes, and chases turned into outright warfare, culminating in an extended battle so chaotic that we needed a diagram to explain it. A few years after that, Miller decided to go even bigger, but we ended up with Beyond Thunderdome, a film that stripped out a lot of what made the series great in the first place — namely, the car chases.
It took 30 years, but George Miller is back, and he’s promised to deliver what we all really want: a movie that is, as he put it, “almost a continuous chase.” It’s possible to look at parts of Mad Max: Fury Road and just see a bigger, more elaborate version of its 1980s predecessors — which isn’t a bad thing. But like the survivors of its blasted wasteland, it’s also a movie that seems intent on leaving the past behind. Fury Road is what happens when retro pulp meets social progress. And that’s the whole reason it works.
Warning: minor spoilers for Mad Max: Fury Road ahead.
Except for a 15-minute introduction, Miller keeps his promise in Fury Road. The film is one big run through a post-apocalyptic desert, which is — as usual — now ruled by a coterie of metalheads and wrestling champions. (What kind of apocalypse? All of them, basically, from peak oil to nuclear war to unspecified "sourness." Fury Road rightly keeps it vague.) The grizzled Max Rockatansky is now played by Tom Hardy instead of Mel Gibson, but his antagonist — a skull-masked despot named Immortan Joe — is played by the actor behind Mad Max’s lead villain. The film’s dusty, cobbled-together props and costumes are drawn straight from The Road Warrior. Fury Road drops the ‘80s big hair and headbands, but overall, it’s amazing how well the aesthetic has held up.
Fury Road, though, effectively dispenses with the chronology and backstory of Mad Max. Max refers to himself as a "cop," but unlike Mel Gibson, there’s just no way Tom Hardy is old enough to have lived through the apocalypse. His antagonists, however, are still rooted in the same old world. Immortan Joe and his fellow warlords decorate themselves with the medals of long-dead militaries, adopt Roman titles, and resurrect Norse mythology. Joe is a traditionalist who has reduced women to breeding stock and men to devoted killing machines, clamoring to be chained to their cars with an IV drip of human blood. His society isn’t just what we expect from Mad Max, it’s our collective vision of the post-apocalypse: a few strong men (always men) mastering the weak, returning humanity to a state of nature.
Fury Road drops the ‘80s big hair and headbands, but it’s amazing how well the aesthetic has held up
Max Rockatansky’s type has become its own cliche over the past few decades: the bereaved, stubbly man seeking vengeance for his murdered wife and child. Here, he’s haunted by the literal specter of his daughter, who appears in sudden flashbacks with the pale skin and hollow eyes of a Japanese horror film ghost. I have no idea how she died or why she existed at all, except to live on as an unusually creepy angst generator.
But Max isn’t the driving force — or even, arguably, the protagonist — of Fury Road. That role belongs to Furiosa (Charlize Theron), Immortan Joe’s trusted imperator. The film’s bloody hunt, which will eventually involve dozens of cars and at least five separate factions, starts when Furiosa escapes in a "guzzoline" truck with Immortan Joe’s five enslaved wives, intent on finding freedom at a distant oasis. Not only does she set the plot in motion, she owns the frenetic first chase sequence, which Max spends as a bound captive of Joe’s literally bloodthirsty fighters.
The pair quickly form a reluctant alliance, but she’s the one whose emotional journey we follow, while Max remains taciturn and enigmatic. Max was a lone savior in The Road Warrior, a self-sufficient misanthrope who chooses to stop and help some desperate survivors. Here, he’s just as desperate as anyone else, one of many survivors who have lost everything — even his iconic leather jacket and V8 Interceptor.
He’s also, for most of the film, surrounded by women. I don’t think they get a majority of total speaking roles, but that’s only because the antagonists are uniformly aging patriarchs and their metaphorical sons. On the heroes’ side, Max and another male character are far outnumbered by Furiosa, Joe’s wives, and a group of female bikers. It's still an overwhelmingly white cast for a story that's written as mythic and universal, but after watching film after film reduce women’s roles to tokens, it feels like dropping into a mirror universe.
What’s really fascinating is how casually Fury Road throws this in, and how willingly it abandons some of pulp’s most pervasive gender tropes. The film’s entire plot is about five beautiful young women escaping sexual servitude, but it’s a film during which sexual peril virtually never comes up — and when it does, it’s instantly subverted. Female characters are shot, stabbed, and run over just like male ones, but they’re never singled out by leering villains or treated like prizes. And while women might be property under Immortan Joe’s patriarchy, men are disposable, and just as tightly controlled.
Rape, and gendered abuse in general, is such a standard part of "gritty" genre fiction that it’s often almost invisible; among other things, it helped drive both Mad Max and The Road Warrior. When it’s recognized, it’s usually defended as a touch of realism. That isn’t the case here — if anything, it would dilute Fury Road’s pure chaos. George Miller’s chase scenes are based on the idea that everyone, no matter how powerful, is only a falling rock or stray bullet away from the same grisly death. By the same token, nobody, no matter how powerless, is harmless. Even if you’re part of a warlord’s harem, there’s a reason you’ve managed to outlive almost every other human being on Earth.
There are only so many ways to kill someone on, around, or under a motor vehicle
This isn’t just nice, or politically correct, it’s necessary. Creating one good action scene is hard. Creating two hours’ worth of them, based mostly on a formula that was developed in 1981, is harder. And filling those two hours with stunts from the same small group of haunted men and alpha brutes would be damn near impossible. Fury Road stretches the limits of Miller’s capabilities; there are only so many ways to kill someone on, around, or under a motor vehicle, and I think he’s figured out most of them.
In its weakest moments, Fury Road relies on Hollywood set pieces that feel out of place with the film’s physical choreography, like a giant sandstorm. In the strongest, you have no idea which of the dozen distinct characters on screen might suddenly attempt a knuckle-biting stunt on top of a moving truck. Once they’re together, Max and Furiosa effortlessly tag-team fight and chase scenes, even when they’re clearly thinking about killing each other. Max has had plenty of sidekicks, but this might be his first partner — the modern counterpart to his 20th-century man.
During a rare lull in Fury Road, an escaped wife asks a female biker if she’s shot people. "I thought girls were above that," she says, upon learning that she has. The bemused response is a lot like my own when people worry about "taking the fun" out of action movies. I came to Fury Road for the crashes, the guns, Charlize Theron’s robot arm, and the villain who lives in a skull mountain and takes his own rock band into battle. The fact that it treats more characters like people, not props, doesn’t diminish any of that. Mad Max isn't "growing up," it's just getting bigger.
Fury Road is still part of an old world — a continuation of a decades-old franchise, not a revolutionary development. But it’s also proof that we can keep the wild, over-the-top fun of aging pop culture without recreating its social roles. In fact, abandoning them might be the best thing we could possibly do.