This post contains spoilers for Mad Max: Fury Road. Don’t read if you haven’t watched the movie.
I’m an action junkie. I have watched everything, but Mad Max: Fury Road shows us how an action film can be perfectly crafted without resorting to special effects for the sake of it (Michael Bay), or relying on cheap, cliched action parlour tricks like bullet-time.
The key aspect of Fury Road’s success is the pacing of the entire film. It’s basically one thrilling action set-piece to another, but there are plenty of “gaps” and fadeouts in between to allow the viewer to rest. And there are no unnecessary monologues or speeches during the fight scenes. Show the audience what is happening, you don’t have to narrate and tell us everything that is transpiring on screen. The viewer is intelligent enough to piece everything together and figure out what is going on.
We know that Max is haunted by the deaths of his loved ones with his hallucinations as he and Furiosa scour the wasteland seeking some sort of redemption. If you noticed, Max is a fairly silent protagonist who doesn’t say much throughout the film, the Samurai Jack of the post-apocalypse. Immortan Joe is a powerful and intelligent dictator who holds sway over his allies with water, crops, and resources. His war boy armies are fanatical warriors who dream of dying in battle to enter Valhalla. Calling Fury Road a pure “action movie” is a mistake, there’s plenty of drama and storytelling under the surface.
I’ve blogged endlessly in the past about how disappointed I was with the final battles of Kill la Kill and The Legend of Korra. Fury Road gets it right because of the following, simple golden rules of action:
– The audience needs to be able to see clearly, all the combatants on the battlefield, what they are doing, who is winning, and why.
That means no idiotic, poorly handled camera cuts like Taken 3 where we can’t even see the fights properly. Do not resort to Kill la Kill’s lazy method of replacing key combat moments with still frames. Imagine you’re watching the World Cup finals — Mario Gotze scores the winning goal for Germany, but the moment where he makes the shot is removed and replaced with a still image of him kicking a football. It’s the same logic here: SHOW the viewer everything.
– The protagonists are the centre-piece of the action, but they need to “work” for their victory.
We want the hero to win the battle. But he needs to “struggle”, to carve out his victory through his own skills and determination. This allows the viewer to get behind the hero, and every wound that he suffers becomes a tension builder. He is vulnerable, he is not infallible, he is imperfect just like every one of us. But we want him to be victorious because it reflects our own goals in life: we all want to succeed.
Now, go back and watch Michael Bay’s Transformers movies and tell me: what did Spike and the Autobots do to deserve their victory?
– Do not overuse special effects
One reason why I didn’t really like the first 300 movie was because of its unnecessary overuse of bullet-time. The visceral, raw man-to-man combat of the Spartans versus the Persians was riddled with endless slow-motion spin moves that started to look like some sort of ballerina audition with weapons.
Bullet-time, if used correctly, can amplify the importance of split-second decisions in time-sensitive fights (Kirei Kotomine vs Kiritsugu Emiya in Fate/Zero; Chow Yun-Fat vs Tony Leung in Hard Boiled). But never use it for the sake of doing so.
– Background music, the under-appreciated tag-team of action
The right musical score can amplify the effects of the action, setting the appropriate mood and emotions for the viewer. Kill Bill is most famous for using its eclectic soundtrack to create tension. Who knew that Nancy Sinatra’s Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) could be such a powerful song in setting up a tragedy?
That crazy heavy metal guitarist in Immortan Joe’s convoy isn’t just there for show: his guitar riffs are adding flavour to the background music. You don’t have to be a heavy metal fan to appreciate what director George Miller is trying to do here: he wants you to feel pumped up during the action scenes. They’re fast, furious, and absolutely insane.
Another key point of Fury Road’s success is the uncommon theme of its combat. When was the last time you’ve seen vehicular combat featuring an entire convoy of cars, trucks, and motorcycles, and with the drivers and occupants flitting back and forth from vehicle to vehicle?
I could go on forever about how the original Mad Max trilogy inspired the entire post-apocalyptic genre, everything from Wasteland/Fallout, Fist of the North Star, Borderlands, and even the Orks from Warhammer: 40k. But that’s a story for another day. Fury Road is the best movie of 2015 so far because its director respects the viewer’s intelligence, understands the concept of pacing, and shows us once again that heavy metal automatically makes anything awesome.