I saw Mad Max: Fury Road last weekend and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. George Miller’s latest installment, some thirty years in the making, is the best action movie I’ve seen since the Wachowski brothers unleashed The Matrix on the world in the spring of 1999. Off hand, I can’t think of an action movie I’ve ever seen in theaters that was better or more fun than Fury Road and I wanted to spend a little time with my fellow nerds discussing why that is. This won’t be a full on critique or review of plot. There are much more eloquent writers at various and sundry other sites who are providing fantastic, in-depth analysis of George Miller’s masterpiece. Instead, I want to highlight a few of the things that make Mad Max: Fury Road the new standard for what an action movie can and should be.
In the 80’s, audience were treated to longer shots, steady cam, tracking etc, but some time in the early aughts, a shift happened. The way in which action was displayed on screen changed, audiences were given a new, rapid fire approach. Maybe it was the rise of the comic book movie, maybe it was Michael Bay’s fault. Whatever the case, industry standard for style shifted.
Instead of lingering shots that follow the action, we were introduced to the jump cut. This style has it merits…sometimes, but it is often over used to shade poor action scenes. It’s film making sleight of hand. It’s what makes this scene from a recent Game of Thrones episode so awful.
And what makes this scene from The Matrix so great!
Notice the long, languid shots, how the camera follows the action. Yes, there are cuts, but they aren’t at such a rapid and frenetic pace. The cuts aren’t trying to mask bad action, rather showcase great action. I get it, one is hand to hand combat, the other is Keanu Reeves unleashing a torrent of gunfire. Fine, here is a scene from Old Boy where we get a lengthy tracking shot as the protagonist beats baddies senseless with a hammer.
I get that the way a film is edited is a stylistic choice and jump cuts can serve a purpose, often though, it’s all smoke and mirrors.
The other evil wrought upon action film fanatics is, for lack of a better word, the shaky cam technique. How do we know this fight is for real? Because the camera shakes as if it were being handled by my palsy stricken grandfather during a small scale earth quake. It has become more and more frequent, showing up in such big films as The Hunger Games.
There’s so much action here the camera can’t stay still. See how action packed it is. THE ACTION NEVER STOPS NOR DOES THE CAMERA! I could also go on a lengthy diatribe about how practical effects were replaced with CGI and nowhere is this more glaring than the travesty that was the Star Wars prequels, but at this point, we all know CGI is awful. The lack of CGI is what made the fights in The Matrix so great and the abundance of CGI is what made the fights in The Matrix Reloaded so bad.
Mad Max: Fury Road suffers from none of these calamities. George Miller shot some 48 hours worth of footage and condensed it into a tight 120 minutes. Near 150 stunt men and women were used. Why was the action so great? Because it was real! No shaky cam or jump cuts here. We have wide shots of chaotic non stop action. There was some CGI of course, but the vast majority of the stunt work relied on real, living, breathing professionals taking risks. Real sets with real people doing actual work allows the audience to have a much easier willing suspension of disbelief. The action in the trailer is better than any feature film of the last decade.
That the action is nearly non stop certainly helps the cause. I can’t think of another film shot so superbly while giving the audicene so little time to catch their breath. The action sequences on the screen were as unrelenting and unforgiving as the terrifying world George Miller created and he should and has been lauded for his effort.
To add one small note… as an amateur cinephile, one thing I really geek out on is diegetic sound. That is, if you hear music, explosions, whatever – you see it on the screen. Mad Max:Fury Road uses this technique perfectly. Need a rocking, metal as hell guitar riff to drive the troops to battle? No worries, there’s a post apocalyptic bugle boy raising hell on a double neck guitar that shoots flames…on the front of a truck that is nearly all speakers, surrounded by drummers. It’s insane, but it fits in the absurd universe that is Mad Max. It’s a deft move of veteran film making that was my favorite part of the movie. Everything you hear, you see.
As awe inspiring of Miller’s technical prowess is from a world building and directorial stand point, as vivid and horrendous as the world he created is -all would fall short without compelling characters and solid story. This is where most modern action films fall short. “What about Dark Knight? That had great character and story,” you shout at your monitor. “Yeah, it was a crime drama, not an action film,” says I.
The prevailing action film today is the comic book movie. The problem with the comic book movie is that the heroes and heroines are near invincible. The story is contrived and the dialogue is dripping with cheese. Yes I had fun at The Avengers, and I loved Iron Man but they lack the staying power of Mad Max. We know these characters. We know how the story ends. It doesn’t matter how perilous the situation, Spiderman wins…every time.
What made action films of old and what makes Mad Max so great is the characters seem real. They are vulnerable. We don’t know if they are going to make it. Max, from the first minute of the movie, is in a constant state of peril. One misstep and he is finished. Much in the sense John McClane from the first Die Hard is a reluctant and sympathetic hero, so too is Max. He seems like a normal guy. Sure, a guy with a high pain threshold, but a guy none the less.
As gnarly as Max is, he can’t compare to the sheer, unadulterated bad-assery that is Charlize Theron’s Furiosa. The fact that it took so long for an action movie to be anchored convincingly by a female lead is disappointing.
Yeah, I know Lucy exists, but it falls in the same camp as comic book movies. No one is stopping ScarJo’s Lucy, she is basically a super hero. Furiosa is a vulnerable, reluctant heroine who has reached and breaking point and decided to act. She is leading a group of scared and courageous women away from the fascist cult helmed by the films main antagonist Immortan Joe. Furiosa’s choice to drive the Fury Road in search of freedom sets the action of the movie in place as Immortan Joe summons all his war boys, his brothers – The People Eater and The Bullet Farmer – on a helter skelter race across the barren wasteland.
Immortan Joe rules with an iron fist, controls the water and keeps the most beautiful women for himself, locked away as breeders. He chases Furiosa and Max with the full force of his twisted domain.
In the brief moments of respite the audience is allowed, we see touching scenes between Furiosa and Max. Max carrying around the weight of a dead wife and daughter and Furiosa desperately seeking redemption as she attempts to save the breeders and lead them to freedom. Ultimately, I think George Miller was seeking a kind of redemption as well. Redemption of the action film genre and thankfully…he succeeded.