Movies can accomplish many things, usually more than any one viewer believes them capable of. This is why cinema became the definitive art-form of the 20th century. While one movie seeks to make you laugh, another film could be trying to persuade you to a specific point of view. While one film may be there for escapist fun, another film is exploring the filmmaker’s past through a metaphorical story.
Just as movies themselves are capable of so much, the action movie has proven itself to an extremely versatile genre. 2014 gave us many choices when it comes to action movies that had more going on under the surface. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes gave us a somber look at war and lead to discussions on gun control. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a nerdy romp featuring a guy with a metal arm, but also featured real-world perspective on government surveillance and gave some commentary on the subject.
In the same vein, Mad Max: Fury Road is an extremely satisfying blockbuster action film which features deep themes and showcases the power of movie making. The film is kinetic in its tone, it never stops. The movie is one big chase sequence. We learn about character’s pasts and their motivations not through dialogue, but through action, huge action. There are compelling protagonists, there is a convincing threat chasing them down and there is some of the best world-building I’ve seen in recent memory. Mad Max: Fury Road both satisfies on a purely visceral level and a deeper piece that adds to the conversation of what heroism is.
The story continues the journey of Max Rockatansky, played by Tom Hardy in this iteration. Director George Miller has said that the film is a “sequel” to his original films while also serving as a soft reboot. In reality though, it doesn’t matter. The three Mad Max films (Mad Max, The Road Warrior, and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) have never been concerned with tight continuity and an overarching plot.
While franchise and connected universes are all the trend today, George Miller is straight-forward in his pursuit of a satisfying film, whether or not you’ve seen the other entries (as someone who has not seen the previous Max films, this was great). Essentially, each film is connected in that it is in the same world featuring the same characters (or singular character: Max), but this is not part 4 of a Lord of the Rings/Marvel Universe cinematic epic. Miller created a world in 1979. He felt as though more could be said with that world and with Max, so he told another story in ‘81 with Road Warrior and again in ‘85 with Beyond Thunderdome.
30 years later, Miller has more to say. While Fury Road follows Max through this truly crazy world, one could argue that Max is not the main protagonist of the film. That honor would go to Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron. It is her story that is the thrust of the plot, she is seeking to liberate the wives (sexual slaves) of our villain, Immortan Joe. Max is essential to the movie, but he more serves as a point of reference for the audience. Though Max has lived in this world his whole life, the setting of Fury Road is new to him. As he learns about this new corner of the world so do we get reintroduced to the Mad Max world.
As Max and Furiosa flee the pursuits of Immortan Joe and his Warboy army, Fury Road shows itself as the classic it is destined to become. The film showcases some of the best action filmmaking this century. At the same time, it features beautifully subtle storytelling and gives the audience the option of digging deep to discover powerful themes and ideas.
First up, the action. The film is exactly 2 hours long and it is possible that an hour and a half is dedicated to action “scenes.” You can’t really call them scenes in that the action IS the movie. In a standard film, we would have a normal story interspersed with “action scenes” to bump up the excitement. Here it is the opposite, the film is (literally) always moving forward with huge well-choreographed action and it is interspersed with various “slower” scenes of dialogue to break up the action.
This means that there are not long scenes where characters explain their motivations and talk about what they are thinking. Instead, we learn about the characters and the world through the action. The aforementioned Warboy army has an entire culture that worships Immortan Joe and also lives and dies by the way of the road. None of this is learned through exposition. There is never a scene where a new Warboy learns about the world and has a teacher explain things to him. Instead, we catch glimpses of how they talk, their way of life and their strife to impress Joe. Whether it is their shrine to steering wheels or their absolute joy in giving their lives for the cause, we are given glimpses of their lifestyle and it makes us hungry to learn more. This is learning about the world and learning character motivations through action, and it is a breath of fresh air.
In the same vein as his tight storytelling, Miller has proven himself the master of tight cinematography and visual communication. Whether it be shaky camera or confusing editing, modern action films are becoming harder and harder to follow. What direction is our chase going? Where are our main characters? How close are they to our villains? These may seem like throwaway questions, but if you can’t answer these questions then you lose your investment in the action scene.
Most films opt for close camera angles and fast editing in the hope that you will view the action as “realistic” as you try to follow it. Fury Road is an anthem for clearly filmed action choreography and an even louder champion for practical effects. Miller and team always make sure you know where each character is in relation to the main action. It’s truly thrilling. You never get lost. Each action beat is its own short film with a 3 act structure and together these scenes make up a modern action masterpiece.
Fury Road fully succeeds in its exhilarating action as well as in its insane (no really, insane) world it presents. Being a story that takes place over 2-3 days, as well as being a movie that is one big chase scene, you would think it would be light on story. It’s not. Some have said that the film’s story is so straight-forward and fault the film for it. As mentioned before, the film doesn’t feature long dramatic scenes where characters hash out their tension. Instead, we are give a single line of dialogue (“We are not things”) or a striking image (the reveal of Furiosa’s metal arm) and we as an audience are given the privilege of filling in the backstory. Miller trusts the audience to go with him for 2 hours. He has too much he wants to do to stop and explain things to the audience.
Miller has a goal. Yes that goal is to make an epic action film set in his Mad Max world, but Miller also seeks to communicate something much greater than just a thrilling film. With Fury Road, we have a bright example of an action film that does justice to its female characters and also features strong feminist themes/storytelling. The plot sees a world run by Immortan Joe and his sons. With the women being reduced only to their reproductive capability the men left in charge have destroyed the planet.
This leads us to more character development via action. Furiosa is on a mission to liberate the women in Joe’s life. Fury Road goes beyond simply passing the Bechdel Test, it gives us one of the strongest female protagonists in recent memory (in an action film at least). Furiosa has the strongest emotional moments of the film as her story unfolds. While Max is the stoic hero we are familiar with, Furiosa is the interesting lead that we get invested in. It is her character arc that carries the most weight in the film and gives us a very triumphant ending.
Mad Max: Fury Road is a film that comes around once a decade. It features breathtaking action, a thrilling plot and wonderfully fun characters. At the same time, the film is a showcase of the power of subtle storytelling. Though the plot is straightforward, the story is deep and you can easily get invested in this fascinating world. On top of this, it is so great seeing a huge summer blockbuster that also seeks to show women as powerful characters and not just the support in a man’s world.
I hope both audiences and filmmakers alike take notice of this movie. Just in the same way Avatar influenced the industry to make 3D a standard experience, I hope Mad Max: Fury Road influences everyone to get back to the basics. Any influence at all would be a benefit to the film world. The more action films featuring great cinematography and strong characters the better.
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