I should be upfront in saying unless something radical happens, Mad Max: Fury Road is probably going to land in my top five movies of the decade. So, if you for some ludicrous reason think flat out that it was a no good movie, you can go ahead and stop reading.
Fury Road does so many things well, most of which have been discussed ad nauseum and, shockingly, for reasons I can’t possibly imagine, almost none of which have made their way into mainstream action movies. The first good choice is obvious, and the most heavily publicized: the action sequences were largely practically put together, with the CGI supplementing actual cars flipping, bodies flying, and fires booming. It makes the movie feel visceral and will help it as it ages – looking back at CGI from even early 2010s (rewatch the first Avengers) we can see how quickly a movie ages, and when the effects are widespread enough and bad enough to take someone out of a movie, the movie becomes a little difficult to watch (until maybe it loops back around to novelty years down the line). Miller wisely avoids CGI for action, while still using it to create hallucinogenic looking landscapes and environmental disasters. In those cases, it’s okay to lean into the CGI, forcing the landscape to feel more emotional, foreign, and like a painting – it’s the reason Speed Racer’s CGI still holds up, and what I wish they had tried more in Thor: Ragnarok, since the trailers had it a bit. When we don’t feel like someone is trying to trick us, we can view it as an artistic interpretation.
Yet still, most movies use CGI as a “set piece” – something that halts the movie so the movie makers can show off all the cool technical innovations that will look outdated a mere five years later. Because the CGI often takes the actual actors out of the equation, action movies (Marvel movies are particularly guilty of this) feel like they’re an on/off situation. This scene is CHARACTER, and this scene is ACTION, and now this scene is CHARACTER again. It feels segmented, and since the action doesn’t really have anything to do with the characters, it’s difficult to make us care about the action. Furthermore, character development is forced to share screentime with set pieces, so a two hour long movie ends up having only one hour of character growth and development, making every character feel thinly sketched. Fury Road circumvents this by doing the most obvious thing in the world and making the character growth and action happen at the same time, in the same beats.
We can start by looking at something that isn’t an action sequence, but does highlight Miller’s talent for action-based character exploration and growth (even this is something most action movies totally fail at). After driving through the brutal sandstorm that wrecks their car, Max wakes up first and finds himself still handcuffed to Nux. He takes a shotgun and attempts to blow off Nux’s arm to free himself. When he fails, he looks ready to try to chew through Nux’s skin or at least snap bones. That, right there, is a huge amount of character conveyed wordlessly. Max then takes Nux’s shoe, having lost his own in the storm. Up until the near end of the movie Nux is missing a single shoe, but once he helps Furiosa, Max and the Wives to escape the Bullet Farmer, Max brings him a show of a vanquished foe. We don’t need to be told implicitly that Nux is now trusted. A single prop, thrown from one person to another, conveys the whole story.
But fine, that’s a bit of a cheat. That isn’t an action sequence conveying meaning, that’s just a character using actions to express their feelings – more rare than it should be, but admittedly not limited to action movies. So let’s look at another moment of trust. The first time they get to the pass with the bikers Furiosa and Max have already agreed to travel together, but both are still on edge and expect the other to backstab them the first chance they get. Unfortunately, Furiosa is left with no options and is forced to teach Max the kill sequence, in case she gets killed: she hopes he’ll move ahead with the Wives but there’s no guarantee. That’s all fine and good, but there’s no trust there yet.
As you expect, the deal goes south and the bikers chase the War Rig from both sides. Max and Furiosa cycle through guns, each firing at foes on opposite sides until a biker gets on the roof of the War Rig and drives towards Furiosa, who is waiting for her gun to be reloaded. He prepares to shoot her but Max catches wind of what’s happening and shoots him through the roof of the cab. This is Beat 1. Instead of facing opposite sides fighting, Max has saved her. But it’s still not quite coordination. That comes a moment later, when Furiosa picks up a flare gun. She can’t fire it through a window, so Max blows out the window with a pistol shot at the same moment she fires the flare gun and hits their target. This is Beat 2. Coordination, understanding of each other, trust.
The sequence ends when Angharad slips out of the War Rig. We see Max looking back, but like the Wives and Furiosa don’t see what happens to her. The Wives scream at Max “we have to go back” but Furiosa responds differently. “Did you see it?” she asks. “She went under the wheel.” “Did you see it?” she demands again, and Max repeats: “She went under the wheel.” “We keep moving,” Furiosa tells the Wives. Before this sequence, she may think he’s lying, protecting his self-interest of forward motion, but the fight sequence has shown they can work together, that they protect each other, and most importantly that they understand each other to some degree. We’ve watched him earn her trust, and we know this conversation would have gone differently just one scene ago.
That’s why the movie works so well. Instead of being two movies awkwardly wedged up against each other (talking head character drama v. characterless CGI fighting) each scene does both things, and because of it the characters are memorable and the action is too. The rules of dramatic writing is that every scene should have a change, that people should want things and either get it or not, and why Mad Max: Fury Road is one of few movies that doesn’t forget that while writing action is beyond me. It even allows for more action, because you don’t have to stop the action to attend to the characters. No movie save for Logan, and even that is only a maybe, seems to have looked at this wildly successful film and taken any cues from it whatsoever, but I wish to god they did.