I'll be honest, I was worried about Fury Road. I saw the trailers and thought it looked silly. And it is a silly movie in some ways and a deeply feminist movie but it's not a bad movie. Likewise, Road Warrior is such an archetypal movie, inspiring so much post-apocalypse themes and imagery that it's hard to overstate its importance. Both movies have their strengths and weaknesses and I want to yammer on about them.
Good action movies are hard to find. Too, too many of them fall into one cliche trap or another. The biggest and worst is not treating the characters like real people. Another is over-reliance on CGI Both Mad Max movies avoid these flaws for the most part. Actions have consequences, characters are human, hurt-able, the stakes are always very high. Though the first Mad Max is a pretty stripped down revenge movie in the classic 70's mode and Beyond Thunderdome is rather meandering and plotless, Road Warrior and Fury Road are both well worth your time and money.
Both movies take advantage of the desert setting to show isolation, desperation of the brutal post-apocalyptic world but also director George Miller shows the stark beauty of these landscapes. Fury Road in particular is a beautiful film to look at. Both movies feature Max, a haunted and driven man who is an outsider and experiences very little change as a result of the movie. Not none, just...slight. Both movies feature amazing stunts, wildly modified cars, dizzy car chases and violence.
There are also dramatic differences, which I'd like to dig more into. Personally, I prefer the opening of the Road Warrior to that of Fury Road. I think the production values (the cars, props and I'll group the stunts in here too) of Fury Road is superior. I think Mel Gibson is a better actor than Tom Hardy but Hardy does a very, very good Mel Gibson impression. Fury Road has a better plot as well...until it doesn't. So let's look more in depth at both movies.
The Road Warrior opens the narrated exposition. Basically, there was a limited nuclear war that destroyed the world's oil supplies. With the end of oil, civilization tore itself apart. I don't mind narration in movies, personally, but the Road Warrior overdoes it a little. But it also makes some sense since the events of the Road Warrior are related partly as the experiences of one of the characters in the movie. Which heightens the story and Max into legend. Fury Road has some opening narration, but provided by Max himself. This is odd since the movie is NOT Max's story. In many ways, he's a bystander to the action rather than driving it.
The Road Warrior opens with a car chase, which shows us how well Max can drive. He outdrives and outwits three groups of barbarians, with one surviving to becoming a recurring villain in the movie. We see Max being competent, we seem him scavenging and surviving. Fury Road opens with a car chase as well but one where Max is quickly blown off the road and captured. Then tattooed. Then he tries to escape and fails at that. And ends up being used as a blood bank for weird albino warboys.
I don't like Fury Road's opening, I think it weakens Max's character. I like competent characters and we do see Max being competent later, mostly, so it's not a movie-long problem and it does serve the plot to put Max near the warboys. But it's also silly. The whole blood transfusion plotline, it's silly, i just doesn't work with the stark reality of the rest of the world, struggling to scrape by.
Next, the Road Warrior has a side encounter with a gonzo helicopter pilot which leads directly to the main plot: a source of gasoline. We've already seen just how precious fuel is in this world, as well being told during the narration. We see Max witness the besieged refinery, see the barbarians surrounding it. Like Max, we witness the attempts of the civilians to flee....or...something. (Their motivations are never very clear) but we see Max take action to rescue some of the survivors. He has a mercenary reason for doing so, he wants gas, but he does act morally, which is no small thing when you're main character's going to be killing people.
Fury Road has Max imprisoned, serving as a blood bag for a young warboy named Nux*. The focus shifts to Imperator Furiosa, who's is supposed to be making a regular fuel run** but has secretly planned an escape into the desert, stealing away the barbarian leader's sex slaves. Fury Road makes a point to showing that mutation and birth defects are a problem in the world now. The women Furiosa is helping escape are flawless, almost literally (several are supermodels). The barbarians pursue to try to capture Furiosa, kill her and recapture the pregnant sex slaves.
For the first quarter of Fury Road, Max does nothing but be a victim. For the first quarter of Road Warrior, we see Max as a competent survivor. Furiosa in Fury Road is a very active character who drives the plot, it's entertaining, I wasn't bored watching her struggle to flee. And after Max frees himself, he does assert himself and then come to work with Furiosa to aid her, just as he aids the refinery folks in Road Warrior. In the Road Warrior, we clearly know what Max wants: he wants to get his gas and go. He does not want to help people out of the kindness of his heart but he's not completely zombied out. The music box piece he finds and the bond he shares with his dog and the feral boy at the refinery shows that he does have a humanity, a beaten and bruised humanity but it's there.
In Fury Road, we see an almost autistic Max, a truly mad man who hallucinates and is tormented by his past failures (including a nod at Thunderdome which indicates a very unhappy ending for those kids he tried to save). We don't know what he wants, the voiceover narration says 'to survive' but that isn't a strong motivation. He's not motivated by sex or even tempted by the nearly naked models or the tough and competent and unbelievably beautiful Furiosa. He isn't promised anything. He has no reason to help them, yet he does. Maybe it's as simple as fleeing the barbarians who captured him. If so, it's a weak motivation. The plot of Road Warrior is stronger.
In the Road Warrior, Max is begged for help, to drive the fuel truck to a mythical south coastal paradise. He refuses, caring only for himself. But when his car is destroyed, his dog killed, when he has nothing left for HIMSELF, he finds he wants and needs to help these people. Not for the promise of reward, not for revenge even but because he's had to find something more than survival to live for. Now, Max is himself lied to and betrayed by the refinery folks, the fuel truck was just a diversion for them to go north, not south and Max is NOT told this. And that may play into his almost pathological distrust of people in Fury Road.
Fury Road is almost just a chase scene followed by a chase scene followed by a chase scene. There is no goal except to get to X location before the barbarians catch/kill them. There is a nice piece where Furiosa returns 'home' to the Many Mothers and to what she remembers as a green, living land...only to find a handful old, withered crones and no greenery or water. Her loss, her despair, her need for meaning is real and strong. But Max has less and little to do with that apart from to convince Furiosa to...return back to the barbarian Citadel.
There is a lot, a lot wrong with that plot decision in Fury Road. Like how is she supposed to take over? She doesn't kill all the warboys, they are at most, hours behind her. They do kill the barbarian leader and display his body but he's been the charismatic leader holding their society together. He's also, possibly, the source of such science and learning that's kept water pumps working, hydroponics growing and knowledge of medicine and genetics. (I'll agree that is inferred rather than said, though) The ending of Fury Road just doesn't work or make sense. It's a chase without enough thought to what the destination may be. But that might be emblematic of the Mad Max universe: Enjoy the chase, that's all there is anymore.
Bonus section about feminist film theory:
Mad Max: Fury road is a deeply feminist movie, as I said. A woman drives the action, women are the destination (the Many Mothers), women are the victim and the prize (the wives), women open the water floodgates at the end and apparently decide to bring Furiosa into the Citadel. But it's a Sigourney Weaver feminism, circa 1979, not the toxic or ludicrous feminism of Andrea Dworkin or Amanda Marcotte.
There are no female warboys, which makes sense in a survival setting. Women of breeding age are too precious to risk in battle. We aren't given much backstory on Furiosa, she seems to be a child soldier abducted by the barbarians long, long ago. Women don't exhibit laughable hand to hand combat skill, Furiosa and Max do mix it up in melee but it isn't handled in a Kirsten Stewart fantasy fashion. It's gritty and real and it works.
Men aren't idiots or tools or the butt of jokes. In this, Fury Road is far better than just about any romantic comedy made since 1980. It is not an anti-male movie. It is as close to the feminist ideal of men and women working together as equals as any movie I've seen since Alien. And it works.