I complain a lot about mainstream action movies. While people try and talk me down with endless chants of “It’s just a dumb action movie!” and “you’re not supposed to think about it!” I’m sitting there thinking about plotting, characterization, camera movement, editing.
It’s not something I can help, it’s just part of my programming. And usually, as part of these lessons about how I’m being a big nitpicking butt, people almost inevitably ask “what do you want?” As of this Tuesday, I have yet another answer I can respond with, another one of those rare, glittering action movies that actually cares about the things I care about.
Yes, everything you’ve heard from the legion of excited fans and critics losing their goddamn minds on the internet is true. Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller’s long awaited fourth installment in the decades-old series, is amazing.
It isn’t just the best action movie of the year. It’s one of the best of the decade. And it will almost undoubtedly remain so. Not just because the action is fantastic, inventive and spectacularly choreographed, but because of how deceptively smart it is. Yes, despite appearances of being a brain-dead orgy of explosions and testosterone, the script under Fury Road‘s hood is a surprisingly well put-together precision instrument, full of wonderful detail and characterization.
It’s one of those oh-so-rare scripts, that actually respects its audience, telling the story through dialogue and character rather than dumping exposition in our laps like we’re excited puppies who can’t sit still and need everything spoon-fed to us. In a mainstream summer genre action flick, that isn’t just unusual. That’s a goddamn miracle.
Our story begins with Max Rockatansky, former highway cop turned post-apocalyptic wanderer, now rocking an epic “I quit” beard and looking much more like Tom Hardy than Mel Gibson.
After a brief chase Max is captured by a group run by the warlord Immortan Joe, and turned into an unwilling blood donor for one of his legion of Warboys. Meanwhile, one of Joe’s lieutenants, Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, steals Joe’s harem of “wives” with the intent of smuggling them to a mythical “green place” across the wasteland in a stolen big rig. Inevitably, Max and Furiosa cross paths, and team up to escape Joe and make it to freedom.
Some people have been calling Fury Road mindless fun and low on story, two claims that upon further inspection seem so far from the truth that they can only see the truth on a clear night through a through a decent-sized observatory telescope.
Fury Road is assuredly NOT low on story. What it’s low on, if anything, is ham-fisted exposition that tells us the story when it should be showing it to us. Even beyond the basic chase narrative, Fury Road is actually chock full of story, full of small details that clue you in on characters motivations and back stories, that inform you about the world and how it works. The movie rarely gives you information by just having one character talk at another. It gives it to you in ways you have to look for. It gives you dots, but leaves you to connect them.
For example, what precisely is going on with Immortan Joe and the Warboys is never spelled out in plain English for the audience. But if you know what to look for, and don’t mind actually thinking for half a second, you can figure it out.
And the fact that the movie lets you is a sign of the respect that George Miller and his co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris have for their audiences. They aren’t living in constant fear of alienating their viewers like so many Hollywood writers are. They don’t view their viewers as mindless dolts who need to be led on a leash from one bit of plot-important exposition to another. They let you do the work, because they have faith that you can.
And in doing so, Miller and co have crafted a world that seems more alive and layered than most other cinematic worlds I can name. There’s so much little detail, turns of phrase, customs, costuming choices, that are only there to add detail to the world we’ve been thrown into. And it never seems arbitrary, it all seems to somehow make sense. When Max asks one character if he’s a “black thumb” all you need to do is look at the context and consider the phrase, and how we use “green thumb” to deduce that this is a term for mechanic.
Miller and others have crafted a world here that you’ll want to revisit, precisely because it feels more packed with potential stories than the friggin’ Discworld. Mark my words, every gang or clan we meet over the course of Max and Furiosa’s escape across the wasteland has a story just waiting to be mined.
That’s what we call world building through dialogue, people. And it is so rare these days that if you could sell it on the open market, that line alone would probably cost more than my house.
Of course, you’ve already heard much made about Charlize Theron’s next-gen Ellen Ripley turn as Furiosa, and how Tom Hardy’s quiet, burned out, almost vulnerable at times Max makes the perfect foil. The one who really astonished me was actually Nicholas Hoult as Nux, the Warboy who initially uses Max as his “blood bag.”
As much as Fury Road is about Furiosa and Max, it’s almost about Nux, giving him his own surprisingly interesting and complex character arc. All of the characters feel more fleshed out than you’d expect. Even supporting players like Joe’s muscle, Rictus Erectus, and Joe’s freed “wives”get enough little character moments that they all feel real, rather than just stock cut-outs.
So the script is great. The script is fucking incredible. How’s the action? Fan. Goddamn. Tastic. As you may have heard, the vast majority of the stunt work, pyrotechnics and car crashes in the film are real, brought to the screen with a minimum of CGI. It’s all beautifully shot and skillfully edited, and Junkie XL’s pounding score gives the action scenes an intense rhythm that captures you and never lets go.
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t quiet moments. There are actually a lot of them. My fear going in would be that the movie would actually live up to its “120 minute car chase” hype and be a numbing, non-stop barrage of sound and fury, one that would eventually deafen the audience and leave the movie a kind of noisy, unpleasant ordeal. Happily, that isn’t the case. Fury Road knows just how to pace out its action so as not to wear out the audience, breaking things up with quieter scenes so we can catch our breath.
Guys, this is one for the books. This is one of those movies that comes along to remind us what action movies can and should be, to give us a new standard against which they should be measured. It’s smart, it’s creative, it respects its audience, and it kicks ass like you wouldn’t believe.
Oh, what a day. What a lovely day.