Race Weekend Central

Reel Racing: How Can George Miller’s ‘Mad Max’ World Inspire Racing Movies?

Have you ever noticed racing movies never quite nail the action?

Maybe future directors could take notes from Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, the latest installment in director George Miller’s post-apocalyptic franchise.

Disclaimer: I’m no expert on movie action or anything of the sort (And yes, I know the featured photo is of Erik Jones‘ Mad Max car promoting the video game from 2015, but Mad Max: Fury Road came out months prior, so it’s close enough).

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With Fury Road and Furiosa, Miller’s doing things few other directors are at this point in time — and he’s doing them at 79 years old. And, after seeing Furiosa in IMAX on its opening Thursday (May 23) night and then rewatching Fury Road on Saturday and loving it as always, it got me thinking about how action is presented in movies now and how that relates to how motorsports films are choreographed.

In this week’s installment, I’m going to attempt to break down how action unfolds in well-regarded flicks within the genre; what typical, run-of-the-mill modern-day action is like and how good action could be incorporated into future motorsports movies.

Fury Road does what few kinetic action films have done, maybe ever, in that essentially the entire film is one prolonged action scene. However, it’s got a beginning, an end, a reason, internal conflict and everything else a cohesive story needs. And it’s gorgeous. Anything the viewer doesn’t know going in, they’re able to gather pretty easily.

Furiosa, for its part, is far more plot-driven, as we follow Anya Taylor-Joy as the younger version of Charlize Theron’s character. This doesn’t mean, though, that we don’t get our share of fantastic action set-pieces, as she duels with the psychotic Dementus (Chris Hemsworth in a wonderfully maniacal villain role, where he’s clearly having a blast).

Sure, there’s no Tom Hardy as Max Rockatansky, but when have the Mad Max movies ever been exclusively about him? They’re about the various people he ends up helping along his nomadic travels in the Australian wasteland.

Despite the box-office bomb overreactions (though it’s definitely not making as much as it should), it’s yet another installment of a pretty phenomenal franchise.

I want to delve into Fury Road, since more clips of that are online since it’s been out for ages, and just what makes it so engaging. The five-minute scene below during the opening portion of the chase is a pretty succinct demonstration.

I’ll try to apply it to racing movies as well, in that we don’t necessarily need 15 things happening at once. In this scene, two of our main characters — Max and Nux, one of Immortan Joe’s War Boys — are on the same car, so that’s our central focus; as is the War Rig, which Furiosa is driving. Those are our three main roles all in the same scene as Furiosa deals with the Buzzards (attacking her) and Joe’s forces (attacking the Buzzards to in turn get to her).

We have long shots, or slightly spliced long ones, establishing our scene. There’s panning shots that show just how expansive Joe’s army is, with glimpses of souped-up cars and bikes and then a tracking shot. This one goes from Max to Nux to Nux’s “lancer” on the back of his car, then backs up behind it after a slight cut as Nux drives forward, then tracks forward (with one splice) from Nux’s car to a truck complete with drummers on the back and the Doof Warrior (Joe’s guitarist) on the front. They’re literally providing the soundtrack for the scene. It’s awesome. Via the end of the shot, we see no fewer than 21 cars, trucks, bikes or otherwise.

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Those longer shots, no matter how they’re sewn together practically or digitally (though excessive CGI needs to be avoided with how commonplace it is today), are always so much better for storytelling purposes. As a viewer, our brains aren’t bouncing around trying to keep up with a scene that has god knows how many cuts in it.

Bohemian Rhapsody gets the most crap for its editing, which somehow won it an Oscar, and its dinner scene is commonly the reference point for how bad it is. But for the sake of sticking with the action genre, below is Liam Neeson climbing a fence in Taken 3.

That’s about 15 cuts in the span of six to seven seconds; no less than two cuts per second. Sure, we can comprehend that he’s climbing a fence, but it’s showing us 10+ views of an action we could cut down to maybe two or three angles, maximum.

This is an extreme example, but the point stands in that so many movies today rely on cut / cut / cut / cut instead of just showing what’s happening. Long takes are awesome. They become a gimmick if used too often, but when they’re done right and depending on what they’re depicting, they’re brilliant.

Let’s check out the 3:58-4:08 mark of this portion below of the climax of Fury Road.

Yes, that’s nine shots in 10 seconds, but what does it consist of?

  • Establishing shot of the War Rig accelerating
  • War Rig POV closing in on the enemy car in front
  • Main character
  • Reaction shot of an Immortan Joe lackey
  • Truck hitting car, front angle
  • Truck hitting car, side angle
  • Slow-motion shot of the collision
  • Reaction shot of main character
  • Back to an establishing shot of the chase field

Similarly, let’s look at Ford v Ferrari, one of the best racing movies to date (the obvious film set of Auto Club Speedway notwithstanding), in the clip below, from 0:06-0:19.

  • Establishing shot of cars
  • Main character looks to the side
  • His POV
  • Close-up of Matt Damon and the “Go Like Hell” sign
  • Reverse of Damon as the car goes by
  • Main character’s reaction
  • Three shots of Bale reacting by upshifting and revving the engine
  • Car accelerating and drawing alongside a competitor

That’s 10 shots in 13 seconds, but each one has a point and meaning in the bigger picture of the scene it’s in … unlike 10 or more angles of the same actor climbing over the same fence.

Racing-movie-wise, this whole diatribe also ties into Rush in that Chris Hemsworth once again proves he’s far more than just Thor in the Marvel universe. In Rush, he’s playing a deeply conflicted driver with personal issues and an overwhelming desire to win. In Furiosa, his character definitely has some of those same traits, only he’s a very loud Australian bad guy hell-bent on vengeance (Hemsworth is having the time of his life, so the point here is let him do more fun, interesting roles).

All of this is to say that the best recent action movies — Fury Road, Furiosa, Ford v Ferrari, Mission: Impossible — Fallout and Dead Reckoning, John Wick: Chapter 4, Top Gun: Maverick, Baby Driver and others — all do an excellent job of minimizing the amount of cuts in a scene. More productions need to take note of this, and Joseph Kosinski (who directed Maverick) is helming the Brad Pitt – Formula 1 film, so that should fall into this category as well.

And emphasize the color palette. Fury Road is one of the best-looking movies from a purely aesthetical standpoint. Do that more, Hollywood — or don’t, because when certain movies do do that we appreciate it more.

We need more racing movies, but we need them to be well-executed. Maybe not to the George Miller level, because there’s only one of him, but a bit closer than some of the films we’ve gotten.

Oh, and go see Furiosa on the biggest screen you can find. It’s worth it.

Follow @adamncheek

About the author

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Adam Cheek joined Frontstretch as a contributing writer in January 2019. A 2020 graduate of VCU, he covered sports there and later spent a year and a half as a sports host on 910 the Fan in Richmond, VA. He's freelanced for Richmond Magazine and the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and also hosts the "Adam Cheek's Sports Week" podcast. Adam has followed racing since the age of three, inheriting the passion from his grandfather, who raced in amateur events up and down the East Coast in the 1950s.

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Deacon Blues

Furiosa looks and sounds phenomenal, can’t wait to see it! Thanks!

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