Film Review: Mad Max Fury Road, and a Note on Action Films

So many column inches and reddit threads have been dedicated to this single damn movie that I almost didn’t bother, but here we go. This review is sort of – but not really – about the film.

Mad Max: Fury Road, the latest in a 30-year-dead franchise and directed by the 70-year-old director of Happy Feet and Babe 2: Pig in the City, incongruously arrives with a level of hype roughly equivalent to every member of the royal family giving birth at the same time. It has been praised variously as the greatest action film of the last ten years, a fantastically bold piece of feminist cinema and generally the most awesome thing to happen to the planet since dinosaurs.

It is, of course, none of these things.

In particular, it is not a manifesto for women’s rights. We simply have such low expectations of the characterisation of women that all the following have the capacity to surprise us:

  1. women advancing the plot without men
  2. women having motivations that are not to do with men
  3. women having conversations with other women that are not about men
  4. women, because they’re not men

Also, there remains this persistent, slightly perplexing, argument that portraying women as being tough, able to fight and good at shooting guns is somehow a Very Important Thing for the advancement of gender equality, which has always been Hollywood’s mantra and is insidiously reductive.

So it’s not a landmark work of feminism. What about its new-found mantra as saviour of the action genre? Possibly one of the worst things in the world of cinema is the prevalence of the phrase action genre. It simply shouldn’t exist. There should be no action section of your local video rental store (oh, such things still exist in New Zealand) and no-one should be allowed to answer action when asked what type of films they like to watch.

Action is not a genre. There was plenty of action in films before they started getting labelled as action films. Action is a means to an end: when it exists in service of a plot, it can be thrilling, hilarious or terrifying, depending on the genre in which it is placed. When action is considered the genre itself, when it exists in a vacuum, it ceases to be all these things, no matter how skilfully it is executed. This is crucial for understanding why we have been lumbered with so many bland, generic blockbusters: we have forgotten why action exists. We now think that blowing things up creates excitement and that having cars go fast creates tension, so we build entire franchises based on the principle that a better film can be constructed by having faster cars and more explosions than the previous film.

A cursory glance at most truly great action films reveals that action only works when it has context and when we care about the characters. Transformers can add as many enormous, robotic dinosaurs as it wants and use them to destroy as many cities as it wants, and it will still never come close to the single scene in Jurassic Park where one dinosaur attacks a single car with two children in it. In fact, the best such films have surprisingly little action in them, because they’ve actually taken their time to build that context and characterisation. Jurassic Park is a slow, menacing build-up of tension, released in just a few short, hugely compelling and terrifying set pieces.

The trend towards saturating films with action is relatively new. Classic action films like Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Die Hard and The Matrix all have considerable down time. Mad Max: Fury Road may buck the trend by proving that action films can be built predominantly around action, but for every Mad Max or The Raid, we’ll be subjected to a plethora of guff that attempts and fails to follow suit.

The love for Mad Max: Fury Road sets a dangerous precedent, because executives will misunderstand why it works. They see it as an argument for wall-to-wall action, whereas actually it’s a case study on how to infuse action with meaning. None of the action in Mad Max is irrelevant or frivolous: it all serves to advance the plot and deepen character arcs. Yes, the action is thrillingly entertaining, but only because we care about why it’s happening. The film is also a case study on how to shoot action sequences, with its wide, dramatic, establishing shots, its beautiful staged cinematography and the careful choreography that allows it to hold scenes for more than a single blurry second.

Mad Max: Fury Road is an exhilarating, often moving story that zips by with no wasted time and leaves you wanting more. It looks fantastic and it has a truly effective score that beefs up the action instead of watering it down (I’m looking at you, Avengers). Its themes are simple, clear and weighty, but hardly revolutionary. It is not the saviour it is being held up to be, nor does it possess any such pretensions. It should be lauded for its ambition and for its gleefully ludicrous insanity, but be warned, for the success of this film will likely make things worse. Because now we’re back to believing that all you need to create an action film is two hours of action, and all you need to ensure equality for women is to make a film for teenage boys, but put a female character in it who isn’t obviously there to look hot.

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One thought on “Film Review: Mad Max Fury Road, and a Note on Action Films

  1. Pingback: Film Review: Jurassic World | Fof's Off

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