Sunday, May 24, 2015

Mad Max: Hysteria Road

Not Pictured: The Star Of The Movie.

Make no mistake, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is fucking great. As a raw, unfiltered, pure car-chase centric action film it ranks among the best ever made. As George Miller's three-decades in waiting return to form, it's the absolutely breathtaking final form of the Ozploitation road movie... And yet, somehow, it's a little strange that I'm left with no conclusion other than "it might have been slightly better if Mad Max wasn't even in it".

That's not to trash on the film. I love it. But there's so many niggling little questions I have that I'd rather talk about the stuff that bugs me than talk about the good stuff. Because, frankly, if I were to do that I'd just be doing this, anyway:

'Nuff said, really.

At this point there's not much to be said about George Miller's original Mel Gibson trilogy that hasn't already been said. The 1979 original Mad Max is a likable enough slice of pre-apocalyptic mayhem in which Mel Gibson takes on a roving biker gang that gets too close to their anarchistic ways, and loses everything in the process. The final scene in the original is as nasty as it's ever been, and the entire scene involving the ultimate tragedy that befalls him is positively gut-wrenching to watch, knowing it's already over and being forced to watch a man see that everything's been taken from him. Produced for $350,000 with actual Hells Angels performing the stunts (and being paid with beer!), the film was such a massive success that it was the single largest budget-to-box-office ratio until being dethroned about 25 years later by The Blair Witch Project.

The dog's name is "Dog".
I guess that makes the guy "Mad Mel"?

The franchise pièce de résistance, however, is the 1981 sequel Mad Max 2 - released in the US as The Road Warrior, probably just so Warner could spite AIP by not having to acknowledge their copyrights in North America. While the first film had already been inspired by 1970s post-apocalyptic films like A Boy and his Dog and The Omega Man, the sequel to a movie about law and order breaking down took cold war paranoia to its logical conclusion, giving Max a life wandering through a grim, wild world in which a man could get run down for a shotgun shell or a tank of "guzzoline".  Few other action films have been as influential, despite this film itself being largely a nod to Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s, coming full circle as Indians and Mexicans are transformed into rag-wearing maniacs and muscle-bound and deformed BDSM punks. The film is bigger, louder, and meaner than its predecessor, and does a fine job standing on its own two feet as a unique story with only hints of who "Max" really is. And it works beautifully as a result.

The franchise was such a phenomenon that international distributor for the sequel, Warner Brothers, decide to up the scale and produce a Hollywood style third picture shortly after The Road Warrior. Unfortunately, Miller's long time friend and producer - Byron Kennedy - died during pre-production, which pushed the schedule back signifigantly, to the point where Miller himself only shot the film's big action sequences, leaving the B-unit to fill in the dramatic beats on their own. The final result is Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, a film that's simultaneously bigger and emptier than The Road Warrior in every way. The first 30 minutes are a visual treat - Max wandering into an oasis city lit only in high contrast nightmares, getting in a fight in a gladiatorial blood sport, and refusing to finish off his enemy... and then, without warning, we see him tied to a horse with an oversized papier-mâché Mardi Gras head and he's saved by a bunch of naked kids out in the desert, who he then decides to protect when he realizes how out of their depths against the remnants of the modern world they are. Apparently this was originally written as a riff on Lord of the Flies, and it shows; I wouldn't fault anyone for falling in love with the post-nuke absurdity of Tina Turner in a hunred-pound chainmail cocktail dress and a foot-tall blonde wig, but I just feel nothing for it after the 30 minute mark... then again, I haven't tried to re-watch it in a decade and a half. Maybe a refresher is in order.

I just assume everyone looked like this in 1985.

It's worth noting that while George Miller's actual franchise has laid inert for many years, it was also responsible for dozens of imitators, knock-offs and even films that took only the elements they liked and layered everything else on from there (see my own beloved Fist of the North Star). It's also the series that launched Mel Gibson's career, giving an almost accidental movie star fame and fortune, giving him free reign until he made the greatest snuff film of all time, said some shit about the Jews, and now merely shows up as smarmy cameos in Robert Rodriguez parodies and movies involving puppets and mental illness. I know the whole world has had fun shitting all over Gibson - myself included - but no matter how shitty he was to his ex-wife or how much he's basically just /pol/ incarnate, I can never hate what he did in these three films. Hell, even with everything else in Thunderdome going goddamn haywire around him, he's still just... Max.

And that's where - despite the overwhelmingly positive reaction that Fury Road has (rightly) been given, being the second highest rated action film of all time on Rotten Tomatoes, second only to... Oh come on, you have to be kidding! - I think a lot of the film's few naysayers are getting their nostalgic panties in a twist on principle more than anything. For better or worse, the hero we're introduced to at the opening of Fury Road calls himself Max, a cop, hell he even drops the term "Road Warrior" to draw all the connections humanly possible... and yet, the character Tom Hardy plays isn't Mel Gibson's Max Rockatansky. He can't be. Not if continuity matters, at least.

While it's true that George Miller has played fast and loose with continuity in this franchise, he made damn sure that Gibson wore a contact lens with a dilated pupil in both the last third of Road Warrior and all of Thunderdome to remind viewers of how hard he ate shit when his Interceptor was finally totaled. Gibson's urge to be a man of action may have left it less obvious at times, but the Mad Max of the 1980s sequels walks with a limp. He's also gone gray in the temples despite Gibson himself only being about 25 years old when they shot Road Warrior. Hardy is actually 37 - over a decade older than Gibson ever was when playing the character - but he's such an overpowering presence he looks younger than Gibson's gimped, wandering shell of a man. Probably the most confusing angle here is that the opening of Fury Road shows Max driving his Interceptor, which as I've just pointed out, got totaled in The Road Warrior... but he loses it in the opening here, so it can't be a prequel, either!

Tom Hardy shares the jacket, gun and leg brace of Rockatansky, but his own tragic tale - shown to be long after the fall of civilization, and involving an 8 years old or so girl who calls him "Papa" and an old black man who claims he 'let him die' - speak to a tale of sadness that in no way lines up with the original Mad Max, or even the bloody misfortunes that follow in The Road Warrior. In effect, Tom Hardy is playing an entirely new character - a funnier, more smarmy one at that... who happens to have a five-second rapid-fire montage of footage from the original three movies.

At this point, I'm pretty sure George Miller is just fucking with me.
But what else would we expect from the highly-cerebral director of Happy Feet?

In short, Tom Hardy is Mad Max... if only in a non-literal, mythological reinterpretation sort of way. He's got the iconic gear, the silent demeanor, the Man With No Name vibe behind all of his decisions... but he isn't quite Mel Gibson's character. This is best explained as being a pseudo-sequel, the same way that Superman Returns is clearly supposed to take place after Richard Donner's two Superman films but doesn't ever quite line up in a way that really makes sense. The more regularly assumed comparison is James Bond who's played by a new actor every decade or so, but in both cases these "sequels" are being made by an entirely new staff, with only the broadest connections being maintained for marketing purposes. George Miller is the only guy to ever make a Mad Max movie, so if he says that Tom Hardy's Max is the same Max, I can still look at him cock-eyed and call him a liar... but, he's right by default. It's his character, and as much as I love trying to twist the wires of continuity until everything clicks into place, this is one of those cases where it just isn't going to work.

George Miller's fucking with you, people old enough to have remembered when any of the original films came out. If you can accept that Mad Max is a concept - a mythological character to be interpreted however the era needs him, not unlike a superhero who's origin changes every decade or two - then you can probably just shrug off whatever baggage Gibson's presence brings to the table. What's far more galling, though, is the fact that... well, I know you can argue that this was true of all the prior films, this is by far the Mad Max film with the least input by the guy named "Max".

See, Max plays the narrator in the opening, and as the audience we're introduced to the War Dogs and their oasis-town of The Citadel through his own blinkered and at times terrified point of view. From there, the film slowly drifts away from Max himself, exploring the culture - the topography, the religion, the cultish mentality crossed with technological deception that keeps the omnipotent Immortan Joe (Hugh Keyas-Byrne) in control of a starving, deformed and miserable village who, in turn, provide willing young men to join the fanatical, kamikaze-Viking culture that keeps everyone from being raided by their enemies, one blessing of fresh water at a time. It's in this truly impressive location that we first meet one of Joe's lieutenants - Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) - who's taking the massive and heavily armed "War Rig" on a supply run... but once she leaves and Immortan Joe's harem has disappeared, they realize they've been betrayed, as Furiosa has actually taken his Five Wives and is headed for parts unknown. They launch an assault on Furiosa, and one of the sickly mutants - War Dog Nux (Nicholas Hoult) - brings Max along for his ride to glory... as his literal blood-bag. Nuclear radiation has been hell on these kids, so they transfuse healthy blood to keep themselves from dropping dead in the dirt.


Saying much beyond this would be a bit pointless; I've already given away the "twist" which anyone who's going to watch it will figure out 20 minutes in, and the rest of the whole bloody movie is a massive car chase to try and take them back. I'm not exaggerating when I say that; there are breaks to change scenery and confirm newly arisen questions, but the two hour film is primarily focused on the roughly 24 hour period in which Immortan Joe loses "his" women, and launches an attack to return them, with Max caught in the middle of it all as a confused, exhausted, and generally pissed off bystander. Furiosa actually does almost all of the lifting in terms of the plot, with Max content to follow her into the gaping jaws of probable death only because turning around to face Immortan Joe's army is certain death, so he likes his chances with the iron-handed warrior just a little more. There's no greater good, no just cause, just survival in its most raw and uncomfortable terms.

And what a glorious day it is for a chase; with Miller himself having promised "90% practical" car chases, explosions and fight scenes, the result is a clearly blocked orgy of cars flipping over in the dirt, getting lit on fire, smashing through cliffs and crushing steel and chrome like it's nobody's business. I can't stress enough how amazingly straight forward and clearly blocked the carnage is, and while you could argue that other films have better moments of finely-plotted engine smashing, you'd be hard pressed to ever challenge the sheer volume on display here. The dedication to practical effects mean only a handful of sequences look fake, because - carefully erased safety harnesses and potential background details aside - they aren't fake. The film simply beats the shit out of its vehicles in a nine year old's wildest sandbox fantasy come to life, with the most obvious instance of its dedication to badassery being the Doof Wagon, a towering Frankenstein of amplifiers and drum kits stapled to an engine with the centerpiece being a guy on an elastic with a flaming guitar, strumming sick licks as Immortan's company charges into battle. It's so gloriously absurd it's fucking beautiful.

This one image is basically everything you need to know about Fury Road.

And then it spends the next 2 hours tearing those fantasy cars down to their skeletons and setting them on fire. In a way it's actually a contradiction of prior films - scarcity of things like fuel, ammunition and water made wasteland survival rely more on stripped down dune buggies and even traveling on foot - but the name of the game for Immortan Joe's society is extravagance and opulence. It's less a contradiction to prior films than an inversion - a trio cults so obsessed with appearance as omnipotent warlords of boundless wealth, they toss aside live bullets and tanks of gas like it means nothing. It changes the dynamic, sure, but anyone who thinks the basic reality of The Road Warrior being as "small" as it could be was anything but the limitations of resources is kidding themselves. If The Road Warrior was the gritty, dingy, unwashed reality of the nuclear apocalypse, this is the overblown metal concert interpretation of the same universe; a pageant of blood and twisted metal cranked up to 11. I can sympathize with those who wanted a smaller, dingier take, but I refuse to complain with what we actually have before us. Particularly not in light of how the last Hollywood Mad Max production went.

So where's the problem, then? If an action movie has all the action, who gives a shit about anything else? This is the mindset that's led to the film having a "98% Fresh" ranking, after all, and I won't deny that it gets the job done and then some. And yet.. well, there's that whole thing about the title, namely "Mad Max: Fury Road". This is absolutely Furiosa's show, and while Max has a few cool moments to himself, he's hardly the typical hero. He isn't a smarmy anti-hero, or even begrudging ally; he's just kinda' there from start to finish. He has even less dialogue than I'm willing to bet he has in any of the prior films, and while Hardy's body language and presence fill in the gaps his mostly mute performance leave behind, he's ultimately such a small cog of the larger machine that it's... odd, that Furiosa herself has more or less the same characterization.

Sure, Furiosa is doing what she does as a means of redemption - paying her dues for whatever sins have put her in good graces with a violent sociopath who proclaims that his unborn children are his "property" - but... that's about it. We learn a little bit about her origins, we see how she reacts to the situation she dives headlong into, and that's it. Her character is defined by her actions - a rare feat in an action film, I admit - but that's really all she has! By the end of the film we actually know more about Furiosa than we do Max, and that isn't saying a lot. It's well handled, I thought, and I applaud Miller for trying to find a way to naturally establish growing trust without making it feel forced or stupid, but it's almost entirely through handing each other weapons. Yes, that's an awesome way to do character development... but, there's the whole problem. They develop into the same fucking character, at least if we're going to view this from a pseudo-mythological point of view, which is the only lens Miller's left me to work with.

While Max and Furiosa's personalities do differ to a notable degree, their role in the actual story don't. The original film had Max playing off his family and friends on the force, giving him a pretty wide net to cast in terms of dramatic range. In The Road Warrior, Max spent much of the film next to a bumbling prisoner-slash-sidekick - a man who was clever but not tough, and could help the tough but not clever Max out of a jam when his well of macho grit finally ran dry. Thunderdome is an abomination, but it was the equivalent of dropping a homeless veteran into an orphanage that's about to be bulldozed by wasteland kitsch Tina Turner. Contrast produces reaction and drives compelling characters to say - and do - compelling things. Unto themselves, both Furiosa and Max are badass loners that could carry a movie like this without a problem... but now they have to carry each other, making the Five Wives even more useless from a characterization standpoint, to the point where they may as well be exposition-spouting macguffin's for the first hour of the film (though, thankfully, they eventually get their time to shine). The reactions all make sense, and that's more than I can say for the overwhelming majority of action films in which a man and a woman have to talk to each other like grown-ups, but they don't amount to a whole lot in the end.

That said, I can't praise the film enough for not even entertaining the thought of a bullshit romance between them; it's clear that neither Max nor Furiosa have time for that shit, and had the film tried to imply that the two were even thinking about porking, it would have become a farce in no time. God, how I wish more films had the balls to reach a solid conclusion and not end with a kiss. Pacific Rim stumbled here in the 11th hour, but at least the lead's quizzical "So, uh... do we fuck now? I'm not sure what the right response here is..." look was closer than I expected. Not that Fury Road didn't find two characters to make cheesy goo-goo eyes at each other. Eh, it's cute enough I'll allow it.

That's not to say that Furiosa isn't textured or nuanced or whatever - again, every aspect of this film's universe was plotted and constructed with a distinct reason, with the subtle implication that Furiosa's mechanical hand may be a literal "Mechanic's Hand", unfettered by the scalding heat of an engine for emergency repair in the middle of a war - but in the end, there's only one character we can tell more about than her:

He gets his own prequel comic?
What a lovely day, indeed...

Immortan Joe. The bad guy. Miller's own White Darth Vader has, by far, the most clear and understandable character motivations; as brutal and destructive as the War Boys society may be, he wants his legacy to live on in a world where nuclear fallout have caused his own genetics to betray him. It doesn't justify sexual slavery by any stretch, obviously, but at least his obsession with his Five Wives is driven by the need to carry on his legacy, rather than simple, violent sexual gratification, as was the case with The Humongous' men. He's afraid of his own frailty, of being unable to pass his legacy down to a generation of strong, healthy men who might keep his society operational when he inevitably dies. The guy's a maniac, obviously, but he's not quite a cardboard cartoon villain.

And that's before we even get into the fact that the actor playing him - Hugh Keyas-Byrne - was the same guy who played Toecutter in the original Mad Max! There's nothing specific to connect the two, mind you - if anything, Bruce Spence appearing as two completely separate characters in The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome suggests that Miller doesn't care about a massive over-arcing continuity... which, again, explains why Max has both a new origin story and flashbacks from previous films. But the implication that Toecutter did survive smacking face-first into an 18-wheeler at full speed, only to survive on into the new world in a portable iron lung - and for his obsession with healthy children to be an extension of  - survival after facing death in the eye at the hands of Max himself is... interesting. Probably not even intentional, but a fascinating possibility in a film that refuses to draw any objective clarity.

And yet, there's a few other things about the whole film that feel "off", for lack of a better way to sum it up properly. Little things, all of them, but just big enough that it got me thinking all the same. Max opens the film with narration, but doesn't close it, having effectively handed the whole film off to Furiosa by the second act anyway. There's a scene that's so drawn out and sappy I'd be shocked if they hadn't shot an alternate take where they die. The film's action set pieces are all phenomenal, but there's very little in the way of actual gore and virtually no nudity; much like Terminator 2 or The Man with the Iron Fists, the whole thing feels like it was gunning for a PG-13, missed the mark by about an inch and then just shrugged and didn't bother to try again. Heck, the one scene of Max being a badass on his own terms - without Furiosa or the Wives involved - is resolved completely off-screen; a great way to show his character's reaction to certain doom, perhaps, but a sort of frustrating cock-tease to anyone who expected the film to have a one-on-one brawl between Max and a wasteland scavenger. This isn't even on par with complaints I've seen for the Nolan Batman movies, since ultimately Bruce Wayne is, undeniably, the focus of all three films; this would be more like if Kick-Ass spent the first half hour with the title character, realized that Nick Cage and Chloe Grace-Mortez were far more interesting, and then spent the rest of the flick from Hit Girl's perspective until the end credits rolled.

I'd have been okay with that, even, but structurally, it just doesn't make much sense, and with the year and a half this thing spent in post-production I wouldn't be surprised if nervous Warner executives and test audiences coaxed the film into a slightly new direction. I won't state anything until the dust settles, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if the year and a half this movie spent in post-production jettisoned a lot of little things and added some other little things that shifted the film into something Warner felt a little more comfortable with. The results are still fine - not every studio executive suggesting a new direction is a Blade Runner level abomination, after all - but I'll be very, very curious to see if any deleted footage winds up on the Blu-ray come the end of the year.

One of the most interesting suggestions I've seen is that Fury Road is a great action movie, but a poor Mad Max movie. I'm of the mind that Fury Road is ten times a better Mad Max movie than Beyond Thunderdome, but all the same I can't dismiss the notion out of hand. How attached you are to Mel Gibson's character will directly impact how much you find yourself liking this film, and while I'd have been perfectly fine with Max having been dropped entirely to give Furiosa more room as a character, leaving them to work in tandem at essentially the same simplified role in a streamlined story perhaps made both of them a bit less defined as a result. It's ultimately not a deal breaker, but it's the sort of thing that creeps up on me more as time goes on as feeling not quite right. Not bad, or poor, just... weird. I love Fury Road, but it feels weird sometimes, that's all.

And then... Well, there's this whole discussion...

I'm not even going to give an archive link for this shit.
Your brain deserves better than this "satire".

For the two or three people on planet Earth who may be blissfully unaware, there's been no shortage of articles praising Fury Road for being a "Feminist Action Movie". As far as I can tell there were 25+ articles effectively rebuking a single self-described MRA for saying he refused to pay for the film... which kinda' shows you how manufactured and hollow these reactions to identity politics tends to be. But as I've said before, I am fascinated by the notion of critical theory, even if most people who try to apply it are just dipshits pushing their own fetishes on everything, so I was morbidly curious to see how this film stacked up as a supposed feminist-subversion of macho action movies.

Mind you, we have to do this in a moment in time when "feminist critique in media" boils down to hundreds of irate fans spamming Twitter and Live Journal because HBO's Game of Thrones - a show literally made or rape, murder, head crushing, incest, torture and sexual mutilation - had the audacity to show a main character getting raped. Off-screen. By a villain. For a show that ends its first episode with a brother-sister couple fucking and then pushing a child out of a window hoping to kill him, it's positively tasteful. There's a very odd undercurrent of those wanting progressive media to actually desire a sanitized, safe version of art that couldn't possibly offend anyone, regardless of the context or meaning behind it; the flip-side of the same coin conservatives have used for decades to hide sex and violence from children. So the question for me wasn't "Is Mad Max a feminist film?" - because hey, that means nothing without a little more context. The question was "Is Mad Max a cowardly, neutered attempt to pander to sheltered social media feminists?" - because man, that could really suck.

It's pretty much impossible to talk about this aspect without explicitly SPOILING certain plot twists that extend well beyond the first reel, so I'll let you know when it's safe to come back... let's mark the naughty paragraphs in red, just to avoid any unfortunate accidents, shall we?

The "new-media" surrounding the film has been trumpeting this as a "subversive feminist statement" for a while, and while I appreciate that some people are excited by that fact, I find it gloriously ironic that the audience most eager to lap up surface-level acknowledgments of a group of freed sex slaves standing against a literal social-patriarchy with the phrase "We are not things!" are the very same audience who will likely leave the theater with a case of the vapors over how the film doesn't hesitate to kill pregnant women, show the villains cheer on that her unborn child was male, and pull back the curtains on the fertile hope of the Vuvalini society as being little more than a violent band of old women who live in a dust pit in the middle of nowhere, clinging to the basic concept of fertility like sad spinsters who will never have another child. Anyone who expected this film to present heroic women as infallible nurturers are going to be disappointed, and anyone who argues that "Trigger Warnings" should be mandatory for scenes of violence against women are going to be pissed to the very core at how little plot armor the film affords anyone, male or otherwise.

This is a burning-rubber and adrenaline fueled action film through and through, with perhaps a single moment of smarmy moralizing so trumped-up and symbolic that you'd probably have a better chance arguing that Friday the 13th franchise is a morally conservative propaganda film, since most of the victims of Jason Vorhees' blade are either smoking pot or having sex. (Except for Part 2, in which he kills the boy in a wheelchair. I love Part 2.) Mind you, the person giving that moralizing - while holding a "War Boy" by the throat and telling him how the world having ended is his fault by proxy - is also proven to be largely sheltered and ignorant of the world around her, so while she's technically right, we're hardly supposed to see her blind anger as nuanced wisdom. The film also makes the wise choice to side-step any misandry, suggesting that the War Boys are just as much victims as the Wives themselves are; human flesh promised to a cult leader, with death being the only form of advancement for a lower-class who just accepts that their lives are limited and worth nothing save for the blood that they draw.

The core theme of the film is, as if anyone had to worry about it, not some ironic-misandry drivel like #killallmen*, but a somewhat more simple one: Those With Absolute Power Are Corrupted And Blind To Their Own Wickedness. It's not a stretch to say that if we were to go back to stone age tribalism, many societies would quickly devolve into something similar to The Citadel. Anyone who'd argue otherwise would have to be so woefully unversed in history that they probably think Genghis Khan is a Mortal Kombat villain.

If #killallwomen would be seen a horrible, sexist concept - and let's face it, it would be - why is #killallmen different? Because men are expected to take it on the chin, thus further establishing that men and women are inherently "different"? Irony, is that you? I'm not offended by it or anything that pussified, I just can't help but laugh at how backwards it all feels when I see it. And keep drinking "male tears", by the way. It means "semen" in Spanish, you goddamn idiots.

There's also the odd fact that Furiosa didn't bother to try and save the thicker, dark skinned "Milkmaid" slaves. They weren't planning to go back for them, so... yeah. Feminism is only for healthy and privileged young women, you saw it yourself. If anyone wants to talk about how progressive and smart and super into women's rights this movie is, remind them that the only women the story felt were worth saving were the young, naive and pretty women who hadn't yet had babies. It actually doesn't undermine the point of the story, don't get me wrong - I like to imagine that Furiosa herself had something to do with capturing or bartering for these girls, and thus they're "her" responsibility in a way the older slaves aren't - but it's a fun, shallow diversion to drop on someone not prepared for it.

The film is deeply feminist at a conceptual level, you'd have to be blind not to see that. But it's a violent, take-no-prisoners approach adhering more to the macho action-fantasy that's far more in line with other already popular and acclaimed "feminist action films" like Kill Bill and Aliens or even (dare I say it?) the rape-revenge films of yore like I Spit on Your Grave and Ms. 45. It doesn't drag its women through the muck like those films did, but the realization that salvation can only be found in violence, is one and the same. One of my favorite scenes in the whole film is when one of Joe's wives sighs at the realization that the Many Mothers aren't the peaceful midwives they'd hoped for. The film sees the victimized sex slaves dropping their Victoria's Secret bandage lingerie in favor of picking up guns and marching to war against a massive wave of stronger and better equipped men, simply establishing that violence, courage and vengeance aren't an inherently masculine value in the world of Fury Road.

You want to change the world? You need to pick up a gun. George Miller knows it, and if this film can show young women that action - not sympathy - are what'll change the lingering reality of sex slavery and victim abuse, shit, I'm all for it. 


So why was there so much buzz about how feminism relates to Fury Road? Why did the click-bait prone new-media concoct an entire bullshit story about an army of MRA-sympathizing cavemen refusing to see their favoritest, manliest franchise ever over so much estrogen getting in their high-octane? What possible angle is there to push, even?

Well, it's mostly because Eve Ensler, best known as the writer of The Vagina Monologues, was brought on set to work with the actors playing Immortan Joe's harem. Not just because she's a feminist of note, but specifically because she's worked with victims of sexual abuse for decades and George Miller wanted believable reactions to how different personalities in an abusive but symbiotic relationship would react to suddenly being both free and alone. That's basically it. I've even tried to see some people spin Ensler off as a rape-apologist due to the above mentioned play featuring The Little Coochie Snorcher That Could, but as this story was itself based on the testimony of one of the 200 women interviewed in the process of making the work, it's less Ensler herself advocating for underage lesbian rape and more her being willing to present an anonymous girl's life as she saw it. If you're looking for a feminist who actually molests children, you're probably thinking of Lena Dunham... but, thankfully, that's wholly irrelevant to anything I've said here. (I'd never deny that Roman Polanski is an incredibly fucking talented director, so it'd be hypocritical of me to shit on an artist for poor personal choices, anyway.)

And why wouldn't Warner Brothers push that fact in the current market? Eve Ensler, writer of the single most provocative and iconic pieces of feminist theater in the 1990s, had a hand in Mad Max! We're going through a curious time where the markets for "nerdy" things - comics, video games, and yes, sci-fi/action movies - have sold about as well as they're going to within the demographics that already like them, and seeing how much money young women are willing to spend on stuff like The Hunger Games, Twilight and Doctor Who has the Hollywood machine drooling at the thought of catering to BOTH demographics at the same time. This is why we're getting a Wonder Woman movie, even though they can't find a director who seems particularly interested in it. This is why The Mary Sue writes grumbling articles about there being no Black Widow merchandise, despite the fact that The Avengers primary audience always has been - and will always be - adolescent boys who care far less about "the girl" because they don't have pubes yet... and, frankly, she's not nearly as interesting as the robot, the green dude, or the alien who shoots lightning. This is why we're getting an all female reboot of Ghost Busters. Because they know men nostalgic for their 80s childhood will see anything with the red-lined logo, leaving that sweet, sweet female market to entice. Somehow.

Pictured: Kung-Fu Grip.
(And the actual protagonist of the film.)

What's funny is that I - and I'm willing to wager pretty much any reasonable human being alive - have no real argument against notion that an all girl action movie could be incredible. It's all a question of casting, direction and sincerity, a combination the all but expected sausage parties fuck up all the time. Hell, one of the greatest "Hard R" action films of the last decade - the almost completely ignored Punisher: War Zone, suggesting that the third time really is the charm for Frank Castle - was directed by a woman! Why the fuck do more people not mention Lexi Alexander when they talk about women in film? Scratch that, acutally - why the fuck is Lexi Alexander not making more ass-kicking action movies?!

But what really fascinates me is less the unsubtle pandering nature of it all - "pandering" itself isn't bad, lest the entire notion of gratifying entertainment ceases to exist - but the broader knowledge that it's not going to fucking work, no matter how hard they push the discussion. Different demographics want different things, which occasionally overlap into both categories, of course - but just because you put the things those demographics want in your products doesn't mean said demographic will start caring about it. Let's say men like transforming robot sidekicks - it's probably not a 100% ratio, but I'm willing to bet that's a thing people with Y chromosomes dig. You could put transforming robot sidekicks into trashy romance novels as a way to encourage a wider male reader base, but odds are the overwhelming majority of readers are still going to be female. Similarly you can put badass women in your movie, even make the core concept of the film about liberating slightly less badass women... and the majority of the people who are going to show up to see a Mad Max movie are still going to be people who would have shown up to see a Mad Max movie if zero women had been in it to begin with. Not because Mad Max fans are uncultured heathens who instinctively hate anything with a vagina, but because they're here for the spectacle of the bombed-out remains of society slaughtering each other in a wanton orgy of explosions, not the possibility of gender politics in a hyperbolic apocalyptic fantasy setting. The fact that we can have both is just gravy, really. Meaty, chunky feminist gravy. There's a sentence I have to find a way to use more often...

To put that idea into perspective, Fury Road has a 98% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. It's literally the highest rated action movie ever made, because fuck you Rotten Tomatoes, Fritz Lang's Metropolis is an action movie the same way 2001: A Space Odyssey is a goddamn hermaphrodite scat-porno. Literally the greatest action film of all time. So how much sweet, sweet dosh did it make catering to both masculine action junkies and the Mary Sue demographic? We're a week in as I write this, and it's currently sitting at... $63 Million domestic, with international sales bumping that up to $128 Million. The production budget was an estimated $150 Million, and that never includes advertising and promotion, of which this film is getting a metric ton's worth. It was actually beaten at the box office by Pitch Perfect 2, a film that cost an estimated nothing. So clearly you can milk young women for a massive profit. You just have to make it into a movie about singing and being comfortable with your fat and sassy self, instead of freeing slaves after World War 3.

Not that anyone expected this to pull in numbers like Age of Ultron, but goddamn it, this is why we can't have nice things...

There's undeniably a feminist bend to the film, but it's wholly justified by the narrative that drives it, and doesn't try to preach much to an audience that just wants to watch cars smash up real good. Much like the undertones of Norse mythology and the idea of separate societies working together, each with their own visibly unique culture, greetings and fascinations - it's simply a part of the fabric that makes up the whole experience. It's not even a "big idea" filtered into the film as an after thought; it's part of the core, and a means to propel the story forward. It's not as on the nose as any of Neil Blomkamp's films have been, at the very least... then again, I've had punches in the face that were more subtle than a Neil Blomkamp flick, so that's not entirely a fair comparison.

I actually feel kinda' guilty writing that much about the flick, because... goddamn, there shouldn't have to be that many asterisks and questions and clarifications for a film that, when you boil it down to the bone, is basically 2 straight hours of gloriously executed desert-burning carnage. The film isn't as bloody or laser-efficient as The Road Warrior was before it, but times have changed since 1982, and George Miller has adapted with it. Budgets, expectations, even audience sophistication in some specific respects have all evolved, and having seen plenty of decent directors try to repeat their glory days unchanged, I find it refreshing to see Miller use his legacy as a backbone to try something a little different. It's by far the biggest and most gloriously crafted Mad Max film, and is by a wide margin the best action film in recent memory. I'd have to watch them both again before making any insane claims like it being "better" than The Road Warrior, but the fact that I'm suggesting that's even on the table should tell you everything you need to know.

Fury Road is good. Damn good. Just a little weird around the edges.


Kriztoffer Swank said...

Went into the movie hearing all the drivel of it being a flick with a strong feminist message. Halfway through saw wet T-shirts of frail, beautiful ladies who had to be saved from their hell and the main one gets literally thrown under the bus (or in this case, a monster truck).

Great action flick that never gets overwhelmingly tiring for the 2+ hours it speeds along. Most of its detractors seem to hate it for using CGI, being shot digitally, not having "Mad" Mel Gibson, and looking like a video game. Eat my ass, naysayers, 'cos this is a worthy continuation of the franchise.

I'd say I like it more than The Road Warrior, but then despite really enjoying that flick I've never considered it my favorite, which remains the first for being essentially a western mixed with car porn. It lulls a little in the middle, but it's definitely the classiest of all the films. Fury Road perhaps ranks second, everything about Beyond Thunderdome after the titular Thunderdome fight and death of half the amazing character Master Blaster is best forgotten; it's Hook before there was Hook, and it sucks shit.

Maddox has a nice review.

Judith said...

I have a log of shit in my rectum. It's tryin' to come out but I want to play with it for awhile. Ya know what I'm talking about?

When my fart gas comes out it sort of joggles that fecal lump around, and I almost shit my pants twice.

It smells pretty good.


Anonymous said...

The doof warrior was pretty ridiculous to be honest. #killallreboots

Kentai 拳態 said...

Judith: ...well then. Glad you've found someone you can be this honest with.

Anon: Yes. Yes he was. That's basically the long and short of the film, too; George Miller wanted an 18-wheeled self-propelled guitar amplifier. He explained to himself why such a thing would exist. He found crazy people to build him one out of real amplifiers. He strapped a stunt man to the front of it and gave him a flame-throwing guitar.

At no point did the phrase "tone it down" get uttered. At no moment in time did anyone with enough sway to change anything question the very idea of a self-propelled Rock and Roll Death Machine. This was the ultimate realization of a sandbox-fueled adolescent vehicle porn fantasy with more care, effort and attention dedicated to it than a hundred films that sit in the shadow of Miller's career. It's selfish, masturbatory adrenaline flavored cotton candy, and the fact that people have tried so amazingly hard to convince not only their audience, but themselves that a woman on staff who can be legitimately described as a professional feminist has in some way made it more is the funniest goddamn thing on the planet to me.

It is what it is. I don't say that as justification because I don't think a film as honest and blatant about its aims and desires needs to be justified any further. I don't need another Road Warrior because the one we've already got is pretty much perfect. I don't need another Beyond Thunderdome either because... well, I just don't. The fact that this film simply went in the direction of goofy and put its deformed elephantiasis foot on the gas the whole way was all I could have asked for, and the fact that the franchise hasn't been consistent in tone or style up to this point allows it some wiggle-room a more rigid trilogy before it may not have.

I mean I get it. If you wanted more Road Warrior you're going to leave wanting. If you just want to see what stupid, awesome shit George Miller's been kicking around in his head for a decade and a half, I think it does everything we'd have the right to ask for.

Kriztoffer Swank said...

The Doof Warrior is so damned ridiculous how could anybody not find that appealing? He's straight out of a SUDA51 game. That whole idea of battle drums and battle guitar as part of the caravan is really cool.

Anonymous said...

You be wunna doze peoples dat says black people do dis, whitey do dat, sheeeet....sucka.....

Ize juss farted.....ize ate sum BBQ beef wit sweet putatas cooked weet brown shuga n ginger spice lass nite, n now my farts smell jess plain AWESOME.

Sheeeeee, muh fugga.....

Unknown said...

Just FYI, the Doof Warrior was played by iOTA (an Australian singer-actor), not some stuntman.

KING said...

I love going into BestBuy and buying dirty DNR'd to hell Blu-rays, it makes me feel CHAMPION SEXY.

Tanku very much.

Anonymous said...

Holy shit!! Kentai, someone just posted screencaps over at Fandompost! See here-

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