In Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller distills his influential film series down to a single, film-length chase. Captured by a warlord, Max (now played by Tom Hardy) finds himself embroiled in a breakout orchestrated by metal-handed warrior Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and enslaved “wives” who are tired of being considered things. This is the sum of the plot, but it is not the story. For the fourth outing, Miller approaches Max as an ageless specter of the wasteland, living a purgatory existence haunted by the people he failed to protect throughout his years as The Road Warrior (particularly a child who calls him by name). Hardy is hunched and reticent, nervously darting his eyes, his Max utterly broken. Survival has become his only goal, momentum the only tool to achieve it.
In Furiosa, Max first sees a convenient alliance. She’s stable, pragmatic, laser-focused on her goal, and drives an armored big rig. By necessity, he makes himself useful to her. As they fend off the pursuing warlord and minor, offshoot tribes in a future-shock version of Stagecoach, sympathy emerges. Rather than one trying to dominate the other, the pair set tasks for themselves and their charges, taking turns shooting, driving, repairing. The spaghetti western loner redeems himself by integrating into a group.
Miller approaches these character arcs through action. He cycles between incidents in every scene, often as many as a dozen people scrambling in, on, or around a rusting, jagged, mobile fortress. Yet we never lose sight of who is doing what where or why, because camera movements are graceful, editing is sparse. We’re always following these bodies, even when they fall, crumple on the ground, and get trampled by tires.
Excitement doesn’t come from how fast stimuli is thrown at the audience, but from how these moving parts intersect and improvise. A boy sent below to repair an engine kicks Max to safety when a fight leaves him dangling on the side of the rig. A chain which bound two people becomes the key to winching the rig out of mud. A sharpshooter sneaks up beside pursuers on a motorcycle and headshots them. There’s a surprising detail or movement or story in every frame. Action movies don’t get much finer.