'The Road Warrior' vs. 'Fury Road'

North Americans never heard of a little Australian film called "Mad Max," despite it being the highest grossing film ever made in Australia. So the sequel wasn't marketed as a sequel at all, just called "The Road Warrior" here. The fourth in the series, "Mad Max: Fury Road," came out this year after a thirty year (yes, three-zero years) hiatus since the third film, "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome." I remembered "Beyond Thunderdome" as being not very good, but apparently the critics think otherwise: it's the lowest ranked of the four on Rotten Tomatoes, but still pulls in an impressive 81%.

Let me see if I can summarise the plot of "Fury Road" ... It starts with Max's voice-over, in which he essentially says "I'm messed up. Society is messed up. There's an incredible shortage of water." That's the complicated part: the other 115 minutes of the 120 minute run-time (although that includes the credits) can be summarised as "Drive. Kill." But I may be going into excessive detail. I should point out that much of Max's opening voice-over overlays violence on-screen - why waste time, right? So "Fury Road" follows the recent tradition of action movies that have no non-action sections, at least none that last more than 30 seconds. I'm trying to place the beginning of this trend, and I suppose that "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is partly to blame: it was considered "non-stop action" at the time, but looking back now it's positively slow-moving and plot-heavy. The first movie I remember that followed this 30-second model would be 2004's "Cellular:" unlike "Raiders," not a particularly good movie.

George Miller (who directed all the "Mad Max" movies) loves his weird names: the villain in the very first one was "Toecutter," the second had "Lord Humungus," and the third had "Aunty Entity," "Master Blaster," and "Pig Killer." But in this outing, he really went overboard: the bad guy is "Immortan Joe" and our anti-heroine is "Imperator Furiosa," but he's just getting warmed up: we also have "Toast the Knowing," "The Dag," "Cheedo the Fragile," "Rictus Erectus," "Corpus Colossus" and "The People Eater." This was one of the most frustrating parts of the movie for me, as processing those names broke my suspension-of-disbelief. But the worst thing was the continuous action: if you have nothing but action, what is there to compare it to? It's the baseline and becomes utterly meaningless. Action works better when it's applied between periods of plot development so you jump and your heart pounds. If it's continuous, you just settle back and eat your popcorn.

In my memory, "The Road Warrior" was quite similar in structure - but I remembered it as being better. Of course, I last saw it shortly after it was released in theatres ... in 1981. So I thought a refresher was in order. And I was very wrong. It certainly has some wild moments of action, and it was a ground-breaking movie - introducing a much grittier and violent form of post-apocalyptic SF to the world - but the pacing and plot development is considerably more like that of "Raiders," which was released in the same year. It starts slowly, with periods of violence interspersed with plot development, leading up to what remains the most spectacular car chase ever put on film (and "Fury Road" has NOT replaced it in that category - it's just too silly). "The Road Warrior" was made in 1981, long before computer effects were used in any meaningful way. They used a huge number of vehicles and stunt drivers for the best practical car effects you're ever likely to see. The story's not bad either. And I hesitate to say this, but it's also substantially more realistic and believable.

Watch "The Road Warrior" if you haven't seen it: it's a seminal SF movie that changed both science fiction and car chases forever. "Fury Road," on the other hand, is simply a mildly entertaining clutch of special effects with only the thinnest of plots holding the violence together.