Hell Hath No Fury
Confession time: I have not seen a Mad Max film before.
Shocking, I know. Somehow, through my formative youth, I managed to not once have any installment of this series grace the screens of the collective households in which I was raised. Granted, it is an Australian series, so maybe my family was simply holding fast to a “No Foreign Film” policy. Or–more likely–they were simply not popular enough to pierce the isolating cultural bubble of small town Canada. We only had one movie theatre at the time and–from all reports–said theatre has long since closed after I had moved from those alpine heights.
Well, I have rectified this injustice over the weekend by seeing the much lauded Fury Road. I was quite excited to see this film after watching a trailer before a movie I’ve long since forgotten. An action movie, that takes place on a single road, in post apocalyptic setting and simple, unabashed back-to-back action? I could not sign up any faster. Alas, I hit a snag when the only friend I had that held any interest wandered off on opening night and saw it without me. My family were all less than enthused to see this film and so I had to search through my achingly meagre list of friends to find someone willing to indulge me and my lust for violence and carnage. Thankfully, I found someone. I can summarize the good and parts of Fury Road as thus:
Bad: It was in 3D.
Good: Everything else.
Alright, that is not true. However, I feel it adequately sums up my feelings about the movie. I can’t help but be reminded of Dredd (the 2012 release) while watching Fury Road. Similar to the Judge Dredd reboot, it wasn’t some over-the-top narrative mess that tried to be more than what it really was: that is an over-the-top action movie. Action movies have a tendency for injecting too much gravitas into their hearts. Movies like the Mission Impossibles and Die Hards kind of get lost in their own convoluted narratives as they attempt to keep the audience guessing about what the hell is going on in the story while jumping from set piece to set piece. Dredd stripped all of that away, keeping its story focus square on the single day in the life of the Judge as he went about breaking up an opportunistic drug cartel that had overtaken one of the megalithic apartment complexes in the Dredd universe. There wasn’t grandiose flashbacks of Dredd’s past, there wasn’t overly dramatic explanations for how the villain was going to change the face of the world, there wasn’t deep and evolving character arcs for the characters. And it all simply worked. You know almost as much about Karl Urban’s gruff Dredd by the end as you do at the start. Which is fine. This is an action movie, not a character drama. All we need to know of the character is expressed through, appropriately, his actions.
Fury Road follows the same formula. As I said, I’ve never seen a Mad Max film so I knew nothing about the character. At the end of the day, I can boldly say I still know next to nothing about the character. The basics are explained as quickly as possible (world went to shit, Max lost his family and is haunted by that loss) and then the action just starts. Within five minutes of the film, we’ve been introduced to a character and then a car chase followed up with a failed escape attempt. Within fifteen minutes, we’ve been introduced to all the main characters before yet another car chase begins (Note: I didn’t actually time this, all these are estimates). There’s no plodding about before we kick of the action. There’s no long narrative overlays to explain this strange and violent world. There’s no rehashing of whatever the hell was covered in the prior three movies of the series. This is it. Here we go. Welcome to Fury Road.
It may be strange for someone like me–someone who loves narrative and character–to adore this approach. And that’s one thing I do want to cover explicitly. While the action is centre stage to the performance, it doesn’t come at the expense of either these two elements. Simply put, Fury Road shows its characters and story instead of telling it. I learn quite a lot about Furiosa, Nux and Angharad without requiring long soliloquies or lengthy pauses to communicate clumsily their personalities. Often you’ll get the advice when writing that one should “show and not tell” without any real indication of what that means. I would point to Fury Road as an example. George Miller lets us know quite a lot about Furiosa and Max without saying any words. There’s a scene where Max is holding the Imperator at gunpoint, along with her entourage, while he systematically searches through the entire cabin of the giant warmachine for every hidden firearm. That Max keeps his weapon trained on unarmed civilians tells us a lot of his practicality over morality. That Furiosa keeps way more weapons around her than necessary tells us a lot of her preparation and fear of being disarmed. That Max fails to find the knife kept in the gear shift and Furiosa checks it the moment he leaves gives us indications for the faults of either character.
The movie is full of all these moments. Perhaps the most interesting and best use of this is with Nux, the fanatical lackey of Immortan Joe who has perhaps the most complex character development throughout the entire piece. When we were first introduced to him, his interactions with Max and his fellow outriders was so well done that I hoped he wouldn’t be some nameless mook to just fill up a few minutes of screen time before being murdered in spectacular fashion. I was more than pleased to see that wasn’t the case. Typically, important characters have grandiose introductions and that this one character could be introduced in such a fashion that you’re left unsure whether he is important or not was–simply put–quite elegant.
So, yeah, Fury Road isn’t just some “stupid action movie” though it’s got lots of wonderful stupid action in it. The set design–if one can really call it that–continues this subtle but extremely effective means of conveying character through subtle indicators. Near every vehicle that rides onto the screen is personalized for its driver. This is important when we start into several of the three faction skirmishes in the movie, giving the audience an immediate shorthand for who is who while explosions and car parts fill the air. The different gangs are given their own aesthetic that helps differentiate while the main bosses of the three pivotal cities (Gas Town, Bullet Town and I can only assume Water Town) ride in on their own unique chariots that convey their personal philosophies. The boss of Gun Town drives a converted muscle car with tank treads, trading efficiency and speed for military bulk. Gas Town, on the other hand, is more concerned with appearances and driving a large and impressive vehicle than something that’s truly combat ready.
And that stereo/war-drum contraption was utterly fantastic! Of course, the main warmachine is designed with various hidden compartment and entrances–another quick shorthand for the unexpected and surprising routes its drivers develop across the feature–while maintaining enough complexity to be the main set for the majority of the movie.
Of course, I feel that I can’t properly comment on Fury Road without making some comment about all that feminism hoopla prior to its release. There was clearly much attention given to the fact that a prominent feminist author was involved with the script or worked on set. Honestly, you wouldn’t really notice and I feel that’s kind of the point. Furiosa does not really stand out as some sort of highly crafted piece of philosophical propaganda. Amongst the likes of Ridley Scott or The Bride of Kill Bill fame, there’s nothing really different about Furiosa. She’s isn’t some sort of bra-burning femi-nazi who constantly shouts for equality or women’s rights. She’s just a woman trying to do what she feels is right in a world that’s gone utterly mad. She’s a product of her upbringing and heritage which has turned her into a capable fighter despite the loss of a limb. And while it makes her rather cold and stand-offish, this is hardly surprising given how long Max holds people at gun-length. Had there been no mention of feminist involvement, I suspect no one would really think anything of Furiosa other than her being a damn good action hero.
And she is a great action hero. She is essentially the central figure of the movie (it is called Fury Road after all), as Max has presumably gone through his character growth in his first movie. Some of the most annoying clichés of serialized fiction is this pressing need to constantly put the main character through the standard “hero’s journey” of character development. There’s only so much that someone like Max can learn in a world as crazed as the one he occupies. After awhile, him constantly getting some sort of moral lesson from all his gallivanting becomes very eye-rolling. I’m always a fan of shifting these sort of character developments to new faces who have the opportunity to learn the lessons the main character simply can not.
So, while Fury Road wasn’t two and half hours of pure car chase shenanigans, it simply and effective delivers on every other expectation and hope that it’s all the better for it. It’s a fantastic movie and I can see immediately where all the inspiration for Wasteland and Fallout derived. It’s so good that I’m going to try and get a hold of its prior installments… just as soon as I find someone to watch them with me.