Good action direction is its own beast, a delicate balance of choreography, cinematography and editing that usually has two distinct goals: be exciting and be coherent. Those goals can be at odds, of course, as the more frantic and fast-paced an action sequence gets, the more likely it is to lose the viewer. 2002 was a watershed year for the actioner with the release of The Bourne Identity, which sported a super-fast-cutting editing style that worked brilliantly in its best moments; Bourne Supremacy, the sequel, doubled-down on this technique and arguably set the bar even higher than its predecessor. But many of the films that aped Bourne in the ensuing years failed to balance those two goals, resulting in messy fight scenes and chase sequences that were hard to follow. Heck, there are even a few moments in the trilogy-capping Bourne Ultimatum that lose the thread of logic in their haste.
I suppose that’s preferable to the other alternative, which is an action scene that focuses so intently on retaining an internal logic that it fails to be exciting (looking at you, Obi-Wan Kenobi). But neither are an issue in Mad Max: Fury Road, which is quite straightforwardly one of the best action movies ever made. The sheer amount of tomfoolery occurring onscreen should be utterly disorienting, with Max fighting his way over moving vehicles as they careen across the desert, pursued by several distinct war parties, some of whom have these pole-vault-looking thingies that launch attackers into the air high above those moving vehicles, and that’s not to mention the action of the landscape around them as sandstorms and falling cliffsides lend additional pressure from all sides…oh, and Max is literally chained to another person for like half of this. Follow all that?
Yes is the resounding answer, when all is said and done. Despite how ridiculous 90% of these action scenes are, never once is there a moment where you don’t understand the exact geography of what’s happening. The aforementioned pole-vault-looking thingie scene is a standout, but an earlier and ostensibly less-complex sequence really displays how director George Miller, cinematographer John Seale, editor Margaret Sixel and the entire production crew worked overtime to ensure the two goals of action film — excitement and coherence — were inherent to nearly every shot.
Shortly after the initial chase sequence, which sees Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) steal a huge rig to transport a group of young women to safe haven, Max (Tom Hardy) catches up to the rig and attempts to hijack it. Slight problem, though: Max is still chained to Nux (Nicholas Hoult), one of the War Boys in frantic pursuit of Furiosa and the rig. Here’s the scene with some voiceover narration from Miller:
Several salient points arise in Miller’s commentary, but the most crucial is the number of cuts throughout sequences like this. As Miller mentions, there are 200 individual shots in the short span of about two minutes. That’s 200 cuts. The Bourne films show their influence in fast-cutting sequences like this, and you’d be hard-pressed to find an action film from the ’90s or earlier containing quite so many shots and cuts. So how do Miller and Co. ensure you’ll be able to follow the action?
Watch that clip again and place your cursor dead-center on the frame. Once the action starts (and even before), you’ll see that the point you’re hovering over is always the focal point of the action. Put another way: your eyes are already where they need to be when transitioning into a new shot. By keeping the focus of each individual shot dead-center of the frame, 200 of them can pass by in a couple minutes without forcing the viewer to feel the weight of that many cuts. Further, we’re never lost in the geography of the scene, despite eight distinct characters, multiple guns and props, the tanker and the chain all participating actively in the action.
And the chain! I’d argue the most crucial cut out of these 200 is the one that occurs around the :56 mark:
This is an axial cut, a jump cut that brings us forward or backward along a specific line. Furiosa decks Max, and because Max goes flying backward, the chain connected to Nux’s wrist drags the War Boy along in the second shot. Our attention, again, is focused center-frame — but the two angles of the rig along the far right of the screen still orient us along that axis. The chain connecting the characters we see in each of these shots runs along that axis, and the cumulative effect of this one cut teaches us crucial logic for the scene that follows: chain pull = character gets dragged.
Later, we see another shot of Nux getting dragged in much the same manner. But there’s no orientation needed this time, either from a cut along an axis or from anything in the frame (like the rig) signaling where we are. The logic we learned earlier carries through, and so having already achieved coherence where the chain is concerned Miller and Co. can move along with heightening the excitement by cutting faster and faster. It’s a bold strategy to trust the audience like that, but the care put into single cuts like this ensure that we’re onboard for the entire sequence.
“Mr. Miller demonstrates that great action filmmaking is not only a matter of physics but of ethics as well,” wrote A.O. Scott in his original New York Times review. “There is cause and effect; there are choices and consequences.” That critique may not have been directed at specific editing choices, but it does apply to the granular breakdown of little story moments like this. It helps that the film seems to pride itself on its visual storytelling, progressing for the duration in a simple linear fashion with nary a word of exposition throughout. Max himself barely says a word, period. And he never needs to, because the action of Fury Road tells us everything we need to know.