Yet that’s not all that makes Miller’s work as an action director so stunning, and what separates him from the monotonous bigger-louder-faster likes of Michael Bay or the Furious artiste of your choice. It’s that he understands, and employs in his set pieces, such inchoate yet frequently absent principles as geography, rhythm, and tempo. Much has been made of the ferocity of the editing — 2700 cuts, per the filmmaker. But it doesn’t feel as choppy and discombobulated as, say, a Transformers movie, because those films seem cut to disorient while creating the impression of speed and excitement, while Miller (and his editor, and wife, Margaret Sixel) situate the viewer within the sequence to create actual speed and excitement. And, even more revolutionarily, they vary that speed throughout the picture, shifting gears like the drivers of those big rigs, which goes a long way towards keeping viewers from feeling like they’ve been bashed in the head with a fucking hammer for 120-plus minutes. (It doesn’t hurt that he’s also more inclined towards practical effects than computer-generated ones, which gives the action far more weight and heft than the collections of 1s and 0s that pass for stunts nowadays.)
As Fury Road geared up for its magnificent climax, I was reminded of a Quentin Tarantino interview where he recalls seeing John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow II for the first time, with a friend who turned to him at about the same point and posited, “If they don’t get naked and boogie at the end of this movie, this has been for nothing.” Have no fear — Miller gets naked and boogies. That final chase is, quite simply, one for the books, a dazzling delirium of dust and fire and sheer kinetic force. Miller zips his camera, pulls out his sound, wails his punches, and bangs and fuses his shots up against each other like a welder. It is bonkers, and it is brilliant.
And here we are, nearly 700 words in, and I’ve barely mentioned the people that populate this film — which says more about the elegance of the style than the purveyors of its substance. Hardy is, unsurprisingly, a perfect Max, easily sliding into the wandering gunslinger archetype (lest we forget, he was introduced in Thunderdome as “the man with no name”), his two or three moments of fleeting humor and/or humanity shrewdly parsed out over the narrative. He is, as usual, a man who does more than he says; Miller regards him in much the same manner. (There’s a wonderful bit where he doesn’t even bother to follow Max away from the group on a solo sidebar — he merely regards his condition as he leaves, and as he returns.)
He’s great, and the title’s the title, but this is unquestionably Theron’s movie. She works with authority, fights like a badass, thinks on her feet, and generally wrecks shop, and if you can make it through the scene where she hoists a rifle onto Max’s shoulder, takes careful aim at an approaching vehicle, and growls “Don’t breathe” and not burst into applause, well, you’re made of stronger stuff than I. But when she lets out her howl of rage and grief at what should be the culmination of a physical and emotional odyssey, it becomes clear that she’s the character at the picture’s center. She’s the one who takes the risk, and who takes the journey; that’s the way these movies work. Max took his the first time out, and serves as an aide and/or inspiration in subsequent installments.
Much of the advance word on the movie, even before its Men’s Rights Activist “boycott,” held that her character and story gave the film a decidedly feminist bent, but this isn’t a case of half-hearted “female stuff” or the current vogue of “…but with ladies” repurposing. The Eve Ensler consulting hire actually makes sense in the context of the movie; this is a story of survivors of sexual violence, fighting back and reclaiming themselves. That they are first revealed in a vaguely eroticized bit with a water hose is a clever bait-and-switch on Miller’s part, and a sly acknowledgment of the way (as writer Matthew Monagle notes) exploitation filmmakers have, from the Corman era forward, smuggled progressive messages into their genre sheep’s clothing.
And to that specific point, charge-leading MRA garbage person Aaron Clarey is right when he accuses Miller of using the Max franchise and action cinema in general as a “Trojan Horse” for a feminist message, though he’s wrong about absolutely everything around that point (his insistence that the Australian-made Max films are “American culture” and his declaration that “nobody barks orders at Mad Max” seem to imply that he’s never actually seen a Mad Max film, and his Chicken Littling about how “feminism has infiltrated and co-opted Hollywood” seems to imply that he’s never actually seen a movie, period). Make no mistake: via this smashing, thrilling, crowd-pleasing studio summer blockbuster, a decidedly pro-woman, pro-victim, pro-empowerment message will reach an audience that might not’ve gone looking for it. And that, friends, is even more delightful than a movie that pisses off a bunch of knuckle-dragging, retrograde, retroactive, mouth-breathing MRAs.