Action films can be so difficult to discuss, and even before that they’re difficult to qualify. You think of Die Hard and Commando, and clearly those fit our notion of what an “action movie” is. But is Heat an action movie? Why, it features extended scenes of gunfights and kinetic, hurried movement. But it also runs at nearly three hours long, and features extended scenes of dialogue, and character development not related to physical action. So maybe it’s the ratio of runtime-to-(physical) action that determines a true action film?
Then still there’s the dissection of what makes a “good” action movie and a “bad” one. Of course we can all share our opinions and have different takes, but the general consensus of critics (whom have their place but shouldn’t tell you what you do or don’t like!) would say that Transformers: Age of Extinction is “bad” (per Rotten Tomatoes’ 18% score) and Pacific Rim is “good” (with 72%). But what’s the difference? Both feature giant robots smashing around cities. What matters in making one explosion more enjoyable than another?
George Miller might be able to teach us a thing or two about that!
Following a thirty-year dormancy that many thought was closer to death than a vacation, the rip-roaring world of Mad Max was given a jolt the size of a lightning bolt with 2015’s Fury Road, a long-gestating follow-up to the Aussie adventure saga. Haunted by his memories and the post-apocalyptic rigor of life, Max (Tom Hardy) is quickly imprisoned by the Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a despotic warlord taken up in the outback, monopolizing the crucial water supplies of the wastelands. A betrayal by the Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), one of his trusted lieutenants, sets a massive chase in motion, with Joe’s war parties tracking the Imperator and her cargo–the enslaved “Wives” of Joe. With former-Joe War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult) switching sides, Max and company make a desperate bid for freedom.
So it sure sounds like a romp, but with a history rooted in the rough-and-tumble practical effects of analog filmmaking, could the series survive in the era of digital stand-ins and generated explosions? The short answer is “yes.” The long answer would be the following words, written in an exploration of individual scenes as well as recurring flourishes by Miller and his brilliant production team.
Not Allies Yet
With a movie so massive, kinetic, and visually-dense, I think it might be best to start small. Whereas much of Fury Road’s action is fueled by high-speed vehicular mayhem, there’s a bit of old-fashioned, mano-a-mano brawling worth highlighting, making an early scene a perfect capsule of what makes the movie’s engine churn so smoothly.
Following Furiosa’s initial divergence and the sandstorm wipeout, Max awakens shackled to an unconscious Nux and the worst hangover of his life. Trudging through the desert following tracks, he reaches the stalled Furiosa and Joe’s band of runaway Wives. A striking and clear observation to be made of the scene, before any fists start flying, is the way in which our camera tells the story.
It’s a cliche–“It’s a movie that shows and doesn’t tell” feels like an easy compliment to pay something, whether or not it’s always true. Fury Road doesn’t talk the talk, it just walks the walk. Before confronting Furiosa and the Wives, we track Max as he approaches the tanker, steels himself, and turns the corner to face whatever might await him. Juiced up speed freaks, the ladies are not.
There’s an expectation in the tension provided by the close-up on Max, which is then dispelled by the POV-like shots of the Wives as they cool themselves with water and strip of Joe’s shackles. It comes across in Max’s reaction, but the way in which we go from the tight, focused framing of Max to the ethereal, mirage-like Wives is a jolt to the senses, and our first indication of an alliance yet to come. But there’s a moment even better in showing Miller’s sense of visual storytelling.
Gun in hand and throat parched, Max demands water from his newfound hostages. Angharad walks over, gingerly, hose in hand. We track her steps over to this manacled maniac with a shotgun, and the choice is an incredibly deliberate one. Following her, we pan down to clearly frame her baby-swollen stomach. Bam–exposition! She’s pregnant. It’s simple, and it might not even be worth explaining, but the choice of an overt image rather than a line of dialogue does wonders for the believability of the film, with world-building being one of the very best aspects of Fury Road. When the characters all know something that the audience should know, always best to relay that information as organically as possible.
That aside, it’s time to fight. Attempting to cut the chain binding him to Nux, Max is ambushed by Furiosa, who charges and engages in a brutal fight for survival. The fight between Max and Furiosa embodies some of Fury Road’s finest achievements in crafting its action, and why it’s so successful at being a thrilling ride: It’s dynamic, and it’s practical.
If action unfolds for an audience in an expected way, there’s not much to be said. A hint of surprise can be crucial in the delivery of any scene, whether it’s being startled by horror or moved by drama. The action in Fury Road is also incredibly aware of what’s in play. That’s to say, if you and I are fighting (let’s not!) and you spot a block of wood to club me with, you might just use that block of wood. Fast-thinking moves win fights, and when a film can show its combatants behaving intelligently and dynamically, there’s a real satisfaction to the action. The blink-and-you’ll-miss flip-flopping of who has the upper hand in the Max/Furiosa scrap is the kind of action that halts your breath and demands your attention.
So Furiosa charges, disarming Max of his shotgun, holding it to him. In her mind, ‘Great, I win.’ Pull the trigger and womp-womp. Gun’s a dud. We as the audience knew that, but Furiosa didn’t; what was just a second ago a foregone conclusion is now a murk of uncertainty. The prolonged fight brings our surrounding factors into the fray, with Max bound to the still-unconscious Nux, he’s tethered and inhibited. The Wives, aiding their protector, yank on Max’s chain, pulling him off of Furiosa, who is given a chance to start swinging at Max with a wrench. Flailing backwards, dodging her berzerker swings, Max shields himself with the car door strung between him and Nux, disarming her as Nux starts to stir.
So far we’ve cycled through four “weapons”: The dud shotgun, the chain linking Max and Nux, the wrench, and the car door. All in about a minute!
Nux stirring, Furiosa gives pause to think and dashes to the tanker when Max raises his chain to clothesline Furiosa, who still manages to reveal a concealed handgun on the truck. Now Nux, not sure what exactly is going on but knowing a gun when he sees one, leaps from slumber, and suddenly our one-on-one (well, the Wives are sort of support) becomes an out-matched scrap.
Nux stops Furiosa from grabbing the gun, with Max making a run for it and reaching it, only to be assailed by Furiosa. Struggling, the magazine pops from the gun. Convenient… but it is a movie after all! Fury Road’s scene repeatedly adds complications to what could have been a simple fight, keeping the audience engaged and lively in an age where even constant explosions and gunfire tire the eyes.
Nux grabs the magazine but the Wives swarm him, pulling once again on Max’s chain. Furiosa kicks, with Max actually protected by his blood bag facemask. Again, Miller taking stock of the key items in play here. Furiosa grabs at the water hose, beating Max left and right, spraying water, until eventually he’s able to pin her, slide the magazine into the gun from Nux, and fire rapid and dangerous warning shots to end the brawl.
Max and Furiosa’s fight is an incredible feat of blocking and pacing an action scene, mere minutes in a two hour film that is comprised largely of action and mayhem. The ways in which these two people have at each other, desperate to come out on top, are copious and creative, yet practical and grounded. We, as the audience watching, don’t expect the water hose to come back into play; “Well it’s a water hose, he drank from it and that story beat has passed.” But for the characters living that moment, what was a minute ago a source of water is now a blunt object within reach, and a fight calls for such things.
The dynamism on display draws a line in the sand between action choreography featuring in Fury Road and less-precise combat in something like, say, the recent Hellboy. You can have your character slug it out with enemies because they come equipped with a fist and a gun–that’s the image we see. But to have your character behave like a real person, submitted to a moment of quick-wits and violence, that creates a sense of unease and uncertainty, which makes every punch and kick all the more consequential. When you don’t know what’s coming next, how could you turn away?
A Whole New World
Fury Road excels at one of the most basic functions of film-going or entertainment media in general, really: Escape. A movie is a portal into a life other than your own, whether it’s the far-flung adventures of a Nazi-fighting archaeologist or the workings of a detective on the trail of a maniac, it’s all in the name of giving the audience a different perspective and experience; showing the audience the world from an angle they’ve not seen before. Science-fiction in particular has a tricky task of this. You’re presenting a world far removed from our own–how do you keep the audience hooked and able to follow the action while refraining from handholding? Show, don’t tell.
In the wake of Furiosa’s flight with Joe’s Wives, the warlord’s forces scramble to assemble a pursuit party to retrieve the stolen “merchandise.” We catch flashes of pale War Boys rushing about, preparing their souped-up speedsters with glee. Slit, Nux’s co-pilot, approaches a shrine of cult-like proportions; bathed in a ray of light, an assembly of mounted, ornate steering wheels to be fitted to the pursuit vehicles. “By my deeds I honor him; V8,” he utters with a gesture of respect, before taking his wheel. It’s clearly an incredibly important moment for him.
The religious attitude attributed to “making war” depicted in Fury Road paints a ludicrous culture born of the senselessness of the apocalypse, though there’s clear basis in fact. You could go into our contemporaries, with social media for the likes of the US Air Force touting death-dealing planes as if they were show ponies, but the War Boys’ fervor is still a step beyond our own modern fascination with violence.
“… And I myself will carry you to the Gates of Valhalla… You will ride eternal, shiny and chrome.” So says the Immortan Joe to Nux, sanctifying his pursuit of Furiosa. The cult of personality surrounding the Immortan and his promises of Valhalla are two things, already spelt out clearly: The War Boys have been conditioned into an unshakable support of the Immortan and his whims, seen today in the backing of any figure of influence, but perhaps more akin to the pledges of loyalty made in centuries past; samurai retainers swearing loyalty to the shogunate, or the loyalty pledged in any variety of criminal organizations. The War Boys’ commitment to Joe goes a step further though, with the promise of “Valhalla.” Stemming from Norse mythology, Valhalla was to be the ethereal afterlife to which noble, fallen warriors were ushered after their glorious demises. There was a grandeur in a death-by-combat for the Vikings which has clearly been adopted by the War Boys.
A lot of this might seem self-evident, but such is only a testament to the cleverness with which Miller parses out his information. There isn’t context given for the battle fervor, but a little knowledge of history goes a long way. The chrome sprayed onto the War Boys’ mouths, the obsession with transfusing blood, the fixations with the war vehicles; though they look foreign they’re clearly serving the purpose of emboldening combatants for pending violence. “Psyching up” for war can be seen from the Vikings historic use of mind-altering drugs to a simple speech of encouragement given before a battle. Again we see the world of Fury Road to be fantastic (and very orange!) but with ties to our own reality and history.
Beyond the confines of Joe’s stronghold are even more glimpses at the madhouse the world has become. A tenet I hold to be true of character development is that it’s often most-interesting to watch someone’s reaction to someone or something else; give the subject something to prompt a response. With that in mind, Joe’s warlord cohorts that come into play give the audience a better idea of the Immortan’s role in the world beyond our story, and the state of things down under. With Furiosa mucking up the post-apocalyptic economy, diverting from her trade mission to Gas Town, people take notice. Gotta keep that irradiated bread on the table. Joining Joe’s pursuit force are The People Eater and The Bullet Farmer.
A brief aside to credit Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris for working with Miller on Fury Road’s script. There are too many names to name for this film, but in crafting the gonzo mayhem we’ve all come to adore, they absolutely need to be acknowledged. McCarthy in particular needs credit for his extensive work on Fury Road’s storyboards and original concept art. Some of the unused designs are even wilder than what we got in the film.
McCarthy’s contributions to Fury Road are perhaps some of the film’s most-unsung. Known primarily as a veteran of the British comic scene, with a running list of 2000 AD credits (Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog). Besides that, he’s also done design work for the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film, Highlander, and others. Fury Road though, is his masterpiece. Truly a melding of his mediums, the frantic-yet-tight editing (credit to Margaret Sixel for chopping what I can only imagine was a sixteen wheeler-load of footage) owes so much to the tempo set by McCarthy’s storyboards. Storyboards, which are essentially comic books, which is why Mad Max: Fury Road has always struck me as a comic book movie, though that’s obviously more of a fantasy on my part.
But maybe the idea of Fury Road‘s comic book heritage isn’t so far-fetched after all. Comic books are crazy, if you weren’t aware. In terms of their epic, convoluted stories but, more obviously, their often-splashy, in-your-face artwork. If people wanted to simply read a story, they’d turn to literature; there’s that salesman-like motivation to keep the reader entertained with clever framing or sometimes just pretty colors. The look and feel of Fury Road owes to the brilliant set designers, costumers, and other art departments that brought the vision to life. But every bridge needs a blueprint, and the painstakingly detailed concept art and storyboards are the plans for Fury Road‘s Golden Gate. Where were we? Oh right, insane warlords.
The introduction of other factions starts to open the canvas up further, recalling the roaming Humungus of The Road Warrior, or the gladiatorial paradise ruled by Aunty Entity in Beyond Thunderdome. With the additional head honchos backing Joe up, things in the world start to make a shred of sense. The People Eater and his tallying of wrecked vehicles and other costs give rise to the possibility of the post-apocalyptic economy I joked about. Those wrecks don’t fix themselves up after all! And who maintains all of those wild weapons we’ve seen our heroes set upon with? The Bullet Farmer might know a thing or two about that.
Yet for as much as these characters expand on the narrative, simply by existing, they’re introduced to us in the simple terms of “colorful bad guys chasing Max and co.” There’s a simple immediacy to their roles in the action of the film, one not necessarily forcing the audience to exploring the machinations of Miller’s world; their surface-level appearance is that of bodies to block our protagonists. But the way in which Fury Road tells its story makes expendable villains into living, breathing parts of a world we only see a fraction of over the course of our two hours on the road.
Mayhem with Meaning
Across the board, from both critics and audiences, there can be the sort of guilty pleasure taken in seeing and enjoying action movies. “Yeah I loved Mission: Impossible, it was just good, brainless fun.” There’s sometimes the need to qualify one’s enjoyment for something (of course, this isn’t strictly limited to action movies) with a “but,” and here it’s in the spirit of zoning out for the sake of pure, visceral entertainment. And that’s fine. Who has the right to decide what entertains you and why it entertains you but you? But sometimes the casual lumping of action films, even bad ones, as a genre of surface-level fluff is a mistake, one that I think Fury Road loudly and clearly dispels.
To pick up some threads we’ve started, the logistics of Fury Road’s production are worth marveling at alone, and while it’s easy to harp on Miller’s commitment to practical effects, I think it really does boil down to a tremendous achievement. But here, take a break from my ranting and enjoy the excellent video by Sploid below:
It’s really awe-inspiring, the work done by the entire crew, whose names I would like to list here in entirety, but will abstain from; for the stunt coordinator down to the production assistant running around handing out water bottles, an earnest thank you and congratulations.
But the hubbub made of Fury Road‘s authentic effects always gave me a bit of pause. The film, as you can probably tell, is worth every ounce of praise it gets, but should something like special effects be hailed as inherently better because they were more difficult to perform? It should always be about the finished product, right? What we see on screen. It’s the argument made in defending works by controversial artists (separate the art from the artist), so whether or not the story of how a film was made should factor into a movie’s objective quality is a bit of a tricky subject, I’d say.
But even in front of the cameras, there’s inspiration to be had in Fury Road. Upon its release and in its wake, much was made of the film’s female cast, with many labeling the film as a feminist project against the expectations of a macho man-in-the-wastes story. For my money, Fury Road has always resonated as being very true to the spirit of Mad Max, with Max filling a wandering gunslinger role, appearing in the struggles of others. But the puzzlement and praise of Fury Road for the prominence of Furiosa and the Wives in the ass-kicking, it could be said, came at a proper time.
Speaking as an American, in 2015 we hadn’t yet reached the boiling point of bald-faced hatred from the government and its supporters that the country would see in the following years, but four years ago a sentiment was brewing that, unfortunately, would be on the losing side of history. In Hollywood alone, female actors were making public stands for equality and better representation in their workplaces; Hillary Clinton announced her campaign for the 2016 presidency. Perhaps it is hindsight speaking, but Fury Road feels to have released at a time when people was becoming fed up with the increasingly-oppressive mindsets that governed (and still govern) the world. Do I think Mad Max: Fury Road was a rallying cry or crucial development in the 21st century push for gender rights? No. But as a representative of a brewing sentiment or zeitgeist, few massive studio films fit the bill better.
The rhetoric and imagery used in discussing and depicting the Wives is in itself enough to digest Fury Road’s stance on strong, female characters. As Furiosa escapes with the Wives, Joe, in a panic, rushes to a literal vault, hopping through a tunnel to the Wives’ “cage,” an oasis of a dome where they’re meant to be kept complacent. They’re long gone, with graffiti on the walls ringing clear with defiance (‘WE ARE NOT THINGS’) and their keeper, Miss Giddy, alone in their stead. “They are not your property,” as she hoists a gun in futile defense. “You cannot own a human being! Sooner or later someone pushes back!” Later we see, mentioned earlier, our first good glimpse at the Wives following the initial chase and sandstorm. They strip themselves of crude shackles and Joe-embellished chastity belts; they’re his breeders, to be touched by no other.
When you take in how upfront Mad Max is with the blunt dialogue and clear imagery, it’s a wonder that it all works. Subtext is more often than not more effective when it’s below the text. But Fury Road, being the sledgehammer-wallop of a film that it is, backed with outrageous colors and set-piece after set-piece, allows itself to be upfront with its ambitions because that’s the kind of package we get overall. To play coy in promoting women kicking oppressive men’s asses would be inconsistent with the vision as a whole, which is another reason Fury Road succeeds at being a positive and iconic film for strong female characters.
Whereas other action blockbusters might feature terrific, nuanced female characters and they may truly have moments in the spotlight, generally they move at a more-sedate pace than Fury Road. These movies have worlds of their own to build, and demand periods of dramatic tension and storytelling. The “baked-in” story and world-building of Fury Road allows for a constant stream of action, character development, and thematic resonance.
Fury Road has been an ongoing journey for me, personally. When it was in production and garnering attention following its Cannes Film Festival premiere, I was intrigued. I was always a huge Mad Max fan. How was it that such a classic franchise could be reinvented today? Yet as Miller began to comment on his process, and the critics spoke in awe of the tremendous wide shots and blistering pace, I was on board before I’d even seen it.
My friends and I have an expression, stemming from our own obsessions with film. “So good it’s funny.” Something that is simply so perfect, on the mark for our tastes and to the point of a work of art or entertainment, you can’t help but laugh in the face of something that good. We’ll go back and forth, most-obnoxiously talking about how “insane the aerial photography in Good Time” was. There Will Be Blood is a favorite for these conversations. “You’re not the chosen brother, Eli…” So good it’s funny. The opening scene of Once Upon a Time in the West, where three gunmen wait in agonizing suspense for Charles Bronson’s Harmonica character, figures in brown dusters framed against a blue sky. So good it’s funny.
For its insane, unrelenting pace and the attention to detail and quality that pervades every frame, every edit… Mad Max: Fury Road? So good it’s funny.