I don’t actually have a copy of Mad Max: Fury Road to rewatch the actual scene and I can’t rent it off the usual places, so I’m just going to go off my memory for this one. So, I could be wrong. Just fair warning.
What happens in Mad Max and what the question was asking are two very different scenarios. Mad Max, even just as a series, is based on desperation. The characters are driven by it, they have limited options and are doing the best they can with the given situation. They are combining what they want (escape) with what they have. Max’s bluff with the unloaded gun is ultimately the same in concept you’d get with any other scene.
The conceptual idea is this: the person being threatened will care more about their own life than they do about than they do about the person holding the gun. TLDR: they don’t want to get shot.
The bluff banks on this to be successful.
Max’s bluff with Furiosa fails. Like him, Furiosa wants freedom more than she cares about securing her own survival in the moment. If she fails, she’s dead or tortured and dead. If he shoots her then she’s also dead.
This is part of what makes the scene successful as opposed to where another might fail. It’s not that the rules are forever unimpeachable, it’s the context surrounding the situation which changes what will or won’t work. We try to remind our readers that most violence is context specific, but I also understand why this can be confusing. Especially when you’re looking for universal rules rather than contextual ones.
You have a situation where a guy carries an unloaded handgun around on his person to threaten people with but doesn’t want to hurt them is, ultimately, stupid. They’re escalating a situation rather than trying to defuse it, but they also lack the guts to make good on the threat. However, this doesn’t mean that this won’t work in a story context. People do stupid things all the time and someone taking an unloaded handgun into a fight because they think they want the threat of the gun without the risk of getting hurt is the kind of dumb shit real people do. It’s not that the idea itself is bad, it’s just that it might not have the results the writer was hoping for or make the statement they wanted in regards to the character’s care for defusing the situation or the safety of others.
In this context, it’s someone who wants the threat of the gun without having to deal with the consequences of one and who thinks they won’t have to. It’s dumb because many people will respond to threats made on their life with violence. You could make a great scene out of a stupid kid who threatens another with an unloaded handgun because they think it’s A) funny or B) will work as a means of stopping bad guys and get their ass beaten as a result.
Meanwhile, we have Max. The guy who has been trapped for a long time, is trying to escape while backed into a corner, and has nothing but an unloaded handgun with which all he can do is threaten? That is very different. It’s a desperate character making the best of a bad situation, which is what Starke brought up in his answer. Characters use the tools they have available to them. It’s in the same category as the guy or girl who is carrying a grenade ready to prime. (And the grenade is ultimately a threat that can be followed through on.)
If Max had a loaded handgun he’d probably be using that. However, we also know that between him and Furiosa, he’s the actual softie. And we certainly see Furiosa respond reasonably to someone who has just threatened her life. She and Max get into a struggle over her shotgun where they do, in fact, shoot at each other. In fact, the entire scene sets up both characters’ desperation. The basis of their partnership is built off their desire to escape.
When you’re sitting there trying to structure your scenes, think about the context surrounding what’s happening rather than just focusing on “The Rules”. Think about the people involved, think about what is at stake, think about your characters and what they know about the world, utilize their knowledge to build your story.
I know a lot of you want your characters to be or come across as competent, but the truth is they don’t have to be. What makes a character competent isn’t how well they handle violence in general anyway, it’s how they deal with the specific events surrounding them in their own narrative.
If you want a real litmus test between a scenario you have planned and a scenario you saw in another story delve into the specifics of the scene in comparison to yours. Look in greater context of the narrative, what influenced the events leading up to it and what it affects in the aftermath. Figure out what made it work for you and how is that different from the one you have planned. Character motivations will make or break this, previous actions by characters change the level of the threat present in the scenario. If you have a character that’s already been proven to shoot people with a handgun bluffing someone with it unloaded, the threat comes across as more real to both the participants and the audience versus two strangers that have no prior experience with each other.
I get that it’s confusing and frustrating, especially when you’re looking to establish a pattern in your own work. Most of the time on this blog all we can do is generalize because we’re dealing with questions in generalities. Your homework is to take what we say if you agree with it or find it interesting and then start looking at context clues/specifics relevant to your work.
The trick is to start making the necessary observations and figure out why it works here even if it doesn’t somewhere else. Just because it worked there in X doesn’t mean it’ll work in another place at Y, but figuring out how and why it did will make the concept easier to adapt into a new context.
This is why you can’t just sit down and copy because when you change context, you change everything.