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Mad Max: Fury Road Rekindles Sensational Cinema, Yet Makes Me Long for Tank Girl

05/15/2015 04:07 am ET | Updated May 14, 2016

As with most movie franchises currently being exhumed and slapped back into service, I grew up with the original Mad Max movies. My dad took me to see The Road Warrior (called Mad Max 2 in civilized countries) -- which seemed particularly abstract, bizarre, and antipodean following our relatively straightforward excursions to Star Wars, Superman, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. (As a child I reviewed The Road Warrior in a notebook, puzzling hard over the logic of desert-dwelling punk rockers with no fuel -- who nonetheless relentlessly drive around in search of fuel.) Then came 1985's Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, with its Tina Turner hit "We Don't Need Another Hero" -- when it was blatantly obvious that "another hero" was precisely what the film's characters needed. Wait -- what?

So here we are, thirty years later (!), and I've viewed George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road, and I'm thinking that what these movies are really about is simply creating a user-stimulating sensation, a triumph of form over function (unless the function is letting disenfranchised audience members feel crazy-manic-empowered for a couple of hours plus afterglow). The plot's a wisp, the characters hazy (though they do talk a lot more than the director has suggested in interviews) -- but then there's that mega-gonzo action, action, ACTION!

Mad Max: The Legacy

(Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

Significantly, prior to Mad Max: Fury Road, I sat through 20 minutes of trailers (odd term, as they don't "trail" anything anymore, plus it says "the following preview" right there on the screen) concerning either bludgeoning, apocalyptic stuff or the Vacation franchise terrifyingly morphing into the Hangover franchise. Shaking off that wearying blur, I dove straight into Max's good ol' "world of fire and blood" -- and honestly my experience proved to be a clinical study: of iconography, of zeitgeist, of nostalgia, and especially of production design and this movie's so-called (and by some dreaded) feminism.

Let's address that claim: This movie features a corpulent chauvinist tyrant mysteriously named after a post-apocalyptic coffee drink: "Immortan Joe" (Hugh Keays-Byrne, the original Mad Max's totally mean "Toecutter"), and his bad boy is the root of all evil in Fury Road's rudimentary but utterly inoffensive Feminism 101 course. The gist? Ol' Joe couldn't be more of a pig, lording his natural spring water over his many wizened minions, while imprisoning lactating women on his milk farm (yes, really), plus of course keeping a harem of pretty young "breeder" wives. (As with Miller's wonderful Happy Feet, Fury Road will impart basic biology to the youngsters, albeit harrowingly.) Joe is the kind of villain who's so thick he needs to be told outright that people aren't supposed to own other people -- and judging by the fanged chastity belts his "wives" kick off during their diaphanous desert fashion shoot later on, Joe hasn't much grasp on the whole fair-play concept of reality.

And that's about it, really. Tough guys -- if any of you are still bitching -- this Mad Max movie is very, very, very macho. It's mostly dumb-ass dudes ramming into other dumb-ass dudes, just like pro sports.

The only other aspect of lightweight feminism presented here is that the eponymous hero (Tom Hardy, unhindered by charisma) -- who proves outrageously passive and even loses his phallic muscle car in the first minute or two -- eventually kind of helps "Imperator Furiosa" (yet another badass cinematic kick-ass chick) save the aforementioned fashion models -- mostly. In the movie's only passage that slows down enough to tell a story, their rag-tag gaggle encounters a tiny matriarchal outpost in the desert, where senior women briefly discuss horticulture and stuff. Then the fugitives literally turn back toward their point of origin and do the same road-warrioring trek over again. Very macho. There is no pastel in this wasteland, save the day-for-night blue of the movie's most brilliantly color-timed sequence. Repeat: This is not a "girl" movie; this is a girls-acting-like-guys movie -- and even then, just a bit (for even Furiosa needs to be saved by a man).

That key performance comes from Charlize Theron, of course -- she who has been throwing around the kick-ass-chick thing about as long and monotonously as Angelina Jolie -- and here her Furiosa betrays very little emotion and scant backstory (saving that for her own sequel, perhaps). Watching her, mainly I wondered why her forehead mascara proves so inconsistent from shot to shot (just look: it's always different). She protects the other women, which is great. But just like Max, there isn't much more to say about her.

My takeaway? Incomparably hot action. Nice theme about liberating the oppressed. This movie's "war boys" chanting "WAR BOYS!" in a manner suspiciously reminiscent of Duran Duran's "Wild Boys" (though they actually resemble extras from creepy old Peter Gabriel videos). The villain is a patriarchal baddie who cannot function without a grotesque breathing apparatus (hmmm). Oh, and I'm pretty sure I briefly glimpsed a "landstrider." Y'know, mainly I liked it. There's a cinematic tradition being rekindled here -- not just the Mad Max franchise, but going back at least as far as Steven Spielberg's Duel, with its killer truck -- a truck soon echoed of course in Spielberg's Raiders, in Miller's own The Road Warrior, and even in Terry Gilliam's Brazil. Following the miserable '90s and too many joyless, humorless superhero movies, happily Mad Max: Fury Road gets the vocabulary of sensational cinema, and knows how to lay it out and blow it up. There's a terrific comic-book sensibility to this film, which is high praise for the work of a seventy-year-old man. In contrast to that other George, I feel like this movie -- with its blood, sweat and gears (and Tusken Raider Hell's Angels) -- is the proper spiritual sequel to the original Star Wars.

Tank Girl: You make post-apocalyptic torment fun!

Still, in the midst of those miserable '90s emerged an anomaly, unjustly dismissed and largely forgotten -- a dirty desert ride featuring an absolutely female protagonist, with wit and verve to burn. A movie worth buying, viewing, and contrasting to Fury Road. I'm speaking of course of Tank Girl by Rachel Talalay (lately directing Doctor Who) -- one of my favorite films ever, and one strongly deserving mention here because, twenty years ago, Lori Petty's titular Tank Girl already took Charlize Theron's Furiosa to task, setting the standard for post-apocalyptic punk ladies, showing us how it's done. It's tough, the world has collapsed, there's murder, there's mayhem, and Malcolm McDowell's utilities-obsessed villain even ups the water-tyrant ante by literally drinking people he doesn't like. Interracial, kangaroo mutants, you name it -- but there's a key difference between Tank Girl and Fury Road, and it ain't swapping budget Tucson for epic Namibia. It's that Tank Girl herself -- basically Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones, and Mad Max rolled up together in pigtails and attitude -- isn't merely portraying the male's wounded and beleaguered anima (look it up); rather, she's got the good womanly sense to stare the apocalypse straight in the eye and turn it into a big, inclusive party! Perhaps we as an audience -- and as a populace -- aren't ready for that free, fun, feisty female yet. But I hope we get there most hastily.