There is a car chase in Michael Bay’s The Rock that became instantaneously famous when the movie debuted in 1996. This action sequence, involving Nicolas Cage pursuing Sean Connery through the streets of San Francisco, completely changed the way action sequences were shot and edited in Hollywood. It also is annoying and frustrating and not very good.
The Rock‘s car chase is certainly is visceral and intense. So is accidentally sticking your hand into a Cuisinart. Neither are much fun and both eventually are a complete mess. The main problem in The Rock‘s car chase is that everything is shot so close and edited so tight there is very little spatial sense of what is happening. Where the hell is anyone in relation to anyone else? A car chase is suspenseful only if we know what is going on: is Cage one block or ten blocks behind Connery? How can there be suspense if we don’t know?
Re-watching it, the sequence is rather tame by today’s standards because what it began has intensified and ramped up so ridiculously. Movies like Man of Steel and The Furious Saga are shot and edited so close, so fast… and often so dark… that all spatial sense goes entirely out the window. These movies no longer are about actual suspense, narrative tension or, god forbid, character. They are designed instead to bludgeon the audience into submission.
The use of CGI has also completely taken over these movies, actors mostly performing in front of green screens with everything digitally created around them. Consequently, nothing we see can actually happen in real life which also drains the action of any real intensity.
All of which is why George Miller’s long gestating Mad Max: Fury Road, six days now in theaters, is so incredibly thrilling, exhilarating and, please Lord, game changing.
Given that everything about Fury Road is awesome and mind-blowing, I will only cover a few things here. Let’s start, however, with the spatial. George Miller is not just a visionary (see almost any image within this often gorgeous movie). Miller is a master at coherent, definable space. Coherent does not mean tame! Much of this movie is absolutely insane. Take, for instance, the much talked about blind bungee jumping guitar player, hung from the front of a massive rig, who plays a real flame-throwing guitar as he blindly bungee jumps:
Insane! But whatever is happening in Fury Road, no matter how chaotic, fast or explosive, we the audience always know exactly what is going on. Who is doing what. Where people are in relationship to one another. What is at stake. (We will get to the fact something is indeed actually at stake in a moment.)
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Miller’s directing, editing, planning and use of the frame is ingenious and purposeful. It always makes sense. If we happen to be momentarily confused about something, that, too, is purposeful, Miller withholding information for a time to keep us leaning forward and to surprise us later. This understanding of the spatial alone means Fury Road should and will be taught frame for frame in directing classes for years to come.
Then there is the CGI or, rather, the incredible lack of it. Miller is obsessed with everything happening for real. Sure there are a few CGI effects, such as the amazing desert storm with tornadoes that ends the first Act.
Yes they also used some CGI to wipe away safety wires. But that’s pretty much it. If you see it in Fury Road, it happened. Which makes the movie incredibly organic, tangible and breathtaking. As Miller said, “We didn’t defy the laws of physics. These are real people in real cars in a real desert.” It might be cool to see amazing digital effects but the real life stunts and real life consequences in Fury Road blow away anything that’s been on screen.
So if you see a blind bungee jumping guitar player, playing a guitar that is also a flame thrower, you can know Miller made a real guy spend six real weeks learning how to play a real guitar, while blindfolded, on a real bungee cord, while it threw real flames. You even hear his actual music in the movie (click here for more).
If you see guys on motorcycles fly over other vehicles to throw down grenades, it happened.
Or if you see this, it happened:
As did this:
If you see Tom Hardy hanging upside down between two huge mack truck wheels speeding thru the desert, his head inches above the ground, it happened.:
And when you sit, after 100 minutes or so, unable to breathe, wondering how on earth they might top themselves, as surely Miller could come up with nothing else as mind-blowing as what you have already seen, this happens:
Not even Miller thought these ‘pole-cats’ could be done for real, so crazy insane is this final action sequence. Yet with the help of an amazing team and Cirque de Soleil performers, this astounding sequence also happened. And it shows. (Even Tom Hardy, afraid of heights, swung around on these poles for a while.)
Best of all, when you see 80 or so vehicles speeding across a desert or through a canyon, as the camera swoops perfectly choreographed above, it happened. The effect is stunning. Unlike most action sequences of late, Miller knows that what is truly mind-blowing are wide shots. Because when done real time, they cannot be faked. Fury Road is filled with some of the most deliriously epic and stunning wide shots every to be seen on camera.
Importantly, the movie isn’t devoid of character or depth. As crazy as the movie often is, there are moments of amazing beauty and haunting quiet. Much has been made of the fact the movie is actually about Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, the strongest female character to hit the screen since Ellen Ripley.
Her performance is kick-ass, as is the character. All the characters have depth. Which lends the movie gravity. When two superheroes are flying around slamming into buildings, and ‘the world’ is at stake, nothing is really at stake because you know the superhero is never going to die, nor is the world going to end. It’s wildly different here. No one is safe and the physical consequences to the action and violence are real. Additionally, unlike most action movies, Miller is willing and able to stop the action for quiet and moving moments such as Furiosa’s devastating reaction here:
Mad Max: Fury Road is an incredible, astounding achievement in cinema. Miller long has been one of our best and most inventive directors. Unlike many, he has directed great movies in various genres, from action to comedy to kid’s movies to heartfelt, impassioned drama. Here, at age 70, he has topped even himself and outshone ‘bad ass’ directors well under half his age.
As one critic said, Fury Road “will burn your face off”. I cannot deny this is true, I’ve had my face burned off twice. I will be back soon for a third facial. Miller and Fury Road are astounding.