It’s impossible to prescribe a guaranteed-gold formula. Films that are, on the surface, devoid of traditional action can fly by like X-wing fighters screeching around the Death Star. And flicks that jump from cut to cut while featuring sped-up cinematography and other tricks may feel as slothful as a long summer’s day on Tatooine.
The latter seems an accurate description for Mad Max: Fury Road, which I recently saw after a period of reasonably heightened expectations. Filled with billowing explosions, zippy edits and frenzied camerawork, the picture pulls out all the stops to offer a thrill ride that no one has witnessed before—an in-your-face apocalyptic actioner that would top all others in the fantasy/sci-fi genre while setting the benchmark for out-there stunts and totalled off-road vehicles.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t succeed … at least, in my opinion. And it’s all because of the pacing, the cinema’s secret ingredient, the piece that marks the difference between a good movie and a bad one, a rip-snorter and a lemon.
Fury Road, despite all its pyrotechnics, plods along more lethargically than the oil rig its dominant female character, Imperator Furiosa, drives. I didn’t care about the characters enough to feel the celluloid move. The dialogue is flat and left me not believing many of the scenes—including a crucial one involving the philosophical transformation of a once-zealous follower of the megalomaniacal monster leader, Immortan Joe. All of these factors contribute to the poor pace of the film, which isn’t helped by the nearly nonstop car crashes and shootings that comprise the bulk of its narrative.
I’m sorry, but I tire easily of that sort of thing if it’s not in measured doses. And Fury Road supplies its mayhem in truckfuls, making it difficult to enjoy each set piece owing to the similarities of one to the other. At one point, I was starting to worry that the protagonists were going to have to dispatch each Driving-Mr.-Crazy in that 100-or-so strong fleet of cars individually—and I’d have to sit through each one. It was a depressing thought.
Thankfully, director George Miller didn’t go there, much to my relief. But Fury Road does tread over previously sown ground—particularly Miller’s previous instalments in this dystopian-future series: Mad Max (1979), Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). None of these pictures is my cup of tea; I find the tales dreary and trying, with over-the-top performances and unpleasant characters. Still, these predecessors had a novelty to them when they came out, a bite. All I got out of Fury Road was a nip, a toothless lunge, reminiscent of faded inspiration and a false-note attempt to remake something old into a new phenomenon. It felt forced, unconvincing, and I don’t have the patience for that. Plus, there’s a sense that it’s derivative of more than just its Maxian forebears—the pasty-white soldiers in Joe’s army call to mind the crazy, pale-faced denizens of the society gone awry in A Boy and His Dog (1975), while the vehicular pursuits hearken back to The Wages of Fear (1953) … which, to my mind, offers a helluva lot more suspense and tension at a fraction of the cost.
I’m sure I’m in the minority with these viewpoints; Fury Road’s reviews have been consistently positive, and performers such as Charlize Theron (who plays Furiosa) have been singled out for specific thespian kudos. Theron is certainly skilled, but she doesn’t have a lot to work with here, and her role has little dimension—though it’s certainly more complex than the titular hero, brought to grunting life via Tom Hardy. If the pace of the movie were more fluid, these issues wouldn’t matter. Yet the picture trudges along slowly, limiting my interest. No amount of jarring cuts and speedy dolly shots can make for pressing drama if the drama isn’t there. It’s not a replacement. It’s just filler.
You know what I find fast-moving? Ivan the Terrible, Parts I (1945) and II (1958). The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Even My Dinner with Andre (1981). All of these films have one thing in common: deliberate pacing, despite reputations for being slow. They involve me, and that’s enough. I can’t say the same for Fury Road.
And that, I think, offers more evidence that the mystery ingredient in cinema can be so elusive. It’s not a given, and it can star in the most surprising movies … while ones in which you’d expect it to shine may thud to the floor. There may be taste involved here—a lot of people like Fury Road, and my opinion won’t even make a dent in its armour—but at some point, I think it has to become a question. After all, it’s the fulcrum on which great films rest, making it too important a factor to ignore.
I definitely didn’t ignore it during my Mad Max experience. Maybe it was for worse, but I’m happy it was top of mind. It gave me another technique to assess Fury Road frankly. And that’s the only way I know how to watch movies.