Thinking hard about action movies: "Mad Max: Fury Road"

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Let's give the real review up front: "Mad Max: Fury Road" has this for a trailer:

If that makes you want to see the movie, you should go see this movie.

But the film is worthy of a longer review.

It is, first of all, a really good action movie. The stunts are kinetic, exciting, visceral, beautifully filmed, and (it's painful one has to mention this) shown in such a way that you can follow the action. Nobody desiring a great action movie with cars will regret seeing it.

It is, next, a charmingly small movie. The scale of the stakes is personal and understandable for each of the major characters: survival; freedom; children. This is true of the villains as well as the heroes: they get interior lives and understandable motives. The fate of the world turns not at all on what happens next. One character memorably describes the situation as "a family squabble" (but Hamlet was also a family squabble).

The plot has little or no idiocy. The action is true to itself: there were very few moments, despite some absurd spectacle, where I felt that the movie was straining my suspension of disbelief. Stuff that will do that for me are physics-defying stunts or feats of strength; the former are not really in play, and the latter were limited to one or two rather immaterial moments.

The movie has what I like most in a piece of science fiction: a well-realized and well-detailed world. The movie avoids the sin of trying to tell you too much back story. You won't learn how Max became who he was. You won't learn how we got to this post-apocalyptic world. But you will accept them, because the details you get are enough to hint at coherent richness. Sure, we're following a suicidal-warrior-cult tribe, but it's one that is historically informed: there's a delightful death-chant, invocations of Valhalla, and a preparation-for-death ritual that's so cute I don't want to spoil it.

It also has (I saw others, notably William Gibson, point out what I didn't consciously notice) lovely set-design details. There's a tin-plate headliner in one of the main trucks, made up of tiled stampings of the bad guy's logo. Every physical object in the movie is that thoughtfully detailed, and it helps make this world feel more real.

So this movie's trinity of success is excellent action sequences, characters that are not cardboard (doubly tricky in a movie that is not dialogue-heavy), and lovely design. This isn't an amazingly thoughtful movie, and it probably won't change your life (not for the better, anyway), but it is a really superb genre movie. And in the same way that the best westerns were more than just genre movies, it is more than just a postapocalyptic car-combat actioner. It deserves a second viewing, and I look forward to seeing it again.