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'Mad Max' Is an Action Movie Posing as a Feminist Movie Posing as an Action Movie

24/05/2015 21:26 BST | Updated 24/05/2016 10:59 BST

I like action movies. I do. I like a good car chase, or a shootout, or a parkour pursuit over the rooftops of an uncredited middle-eastern metropolis. I like to see a man in a suit kicking over a table, or Matt Damon in an apartment about to stab someone with a biro. Better than action movies though, I like clever action movies. I like cerebral films that inspire a subtext, things like the second Hunger Games, LOTR or anything made by Christopher Nolan. I like that moment when the plainly predictable film twists into a horrorshow, when everything turns out to be a dream, and when that dream turns out to be a dream within a dream and the whole thing a post-surrealist metaphor for filmmaking. An action movie is made so much better, don't you think, when you can congratulate yourself for getting it as well as just enjoying it.

From everything I'd read then, Mad Max: Fury Road looked like it should be right up my cultural-critique alley: A car chase through a postapolocalyptic wastleland 40 years after TTIP spelt the end of ecology; a couple of villains in shredded suits in case you weren't sure they were the fat cat capitalists; and a powerful female lead overthrowing the patriarchy and liberating the women it oppressed. Chuck in some grannies, a bit of disability and a token (albeit titular) man, and you've got yourself a movie that ticks just about all my pseudo-Scandinavian boxes.

But then I went and saw it and it was quite boring. Ok so Imperator Furiosa (aka Charlize Theron with a buzzcut) is a badass for sure. And symbolically she's an important statement, a statement that says, not only women, but disabled women, can be strong, independent pragmatists (and that doesn't mean looking good in a bikini and chaps). But Furiosa is powerful in a distinctively masculine sense, the imaginatively named Vuvalini the same. If this film is a feminist allegory, it is at the expense of the feminine. If Furiosa and the Vuvalini are good at shooting guns and riding motorycles then the five wives are coy little saplings, distinguishable more by their multicoloured hair than the multiplicity of their personalities. The only indications of empowering femininity are a few awkward vignettes between the girls and the grandmas, about as touching as a shoehorn to the side of the face.

Sadly, I think this film may have set out to snare feminists. 'Put a woman in without sexualising her', 'show some old ladies being maternal', 'amputate one of her arms to indicate vulnerability'. The thing is it doesn't work. This is still a film made by a man, primarily for men - focusing on apolitical sensory stimulation over any degree of character development. It's true Mad Max hardly speaks, but neither does anyone else: the flame thrower guitar man had more personality than half the wives.

Part of me thinks this kind of feminism can be thrown out in the same way as Maggie Thatcher's arrival at Number 10. Like Thatcher, Furiosa is an honorary man, proving the success of one woman does not mean the liberation of all. Her strength may say something about the redundancy of gender tropes, but in that case it's a shame it didn't stretch as far as the infantilised five wives. Rather than demonstrating the potential for strong women, Furiosa and the Vuvalini, like Thatcher, are decisively 'other' - more akin to an alien race than a relateable womanhood. Meanwhile, the sex slaves supposed to indicate the oppression of women are introduced in a notable parody of the carwash sequence; a reference that may have been intended as tongue-in-cheek, but was undermined by the fact two out of the five are Victoria's Secret Angels.

This film had something, it really did. But it didn't have enough. You know how Pixar films are supposed to appeal to a child's sensibility for colour and action while a subtext keeps their parents entertained? Well this felt like that except, instead of children, it was adult men being entertained with all the normal sex and 'splosions stuff, and instead of parents it was feminists scouring the duststorms for something political. Unfortunately the compromise didn't quite work and the film is neither feminist enough nor exciting enough to satisfy either sides of my cinematic brain. Neither did it trick the Men's Rights Activists, who in the run-up to this film had already picked apart the attempted statement and coordinated a petition. Perhaps my comparison to children was more apt that I intended, but still clearly it was naïve to think this would sail over their heads.

What this film shows for me is the potential for a political action movie to be amazing. It shows the scope for a high speed pissing-contest to be subverted into a subtle statement on the ills in our society. But sadly I don't think its been done here. What you'd really need is someone who really got the genre but also wasn't scared to flip it on its head and ridicule it. In other words, someone like Quentin Tarantino - if only he was a woman.