It's hard to overstate the influence George Miller's Mad Max movies have had on popular culture. His vision of a spaghetti Western-style antihero roaming a blasted, post-apocalyptic wasteland where tribe-like factions battle it out for precious resources, most especially fuel, has become the template for countless films, novels, comic books, and video games.
If there were any worries that two decades of producing Babe the pig and Happy Feet movies have dulled the action instincts of the 70-year-old director, Mad Max: Fury Road is proof positive that Miller remains the master of psychedelic, high-octane mayhem. In fact, it's hard to find another example of a director so successfully returning to his career-making franchise decades later. Steven Spielberg certainly didn't with Indiana Jones, Francis Ford Coppola fumbled the third Godfather, and the less said of George Lucas' Star Wars prequels the better. Fury Road comes three decades after Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, a movie that managed to impress even with extensive studio meddling and the death of Miller's creative partner Byron Kennedy.
Max Rockatansky is now played by Tom Hardy, who brings with him the PTSD edge of a man haunted by the family he lost. In the film's raucous opening, Max is captured by the tumor-riddled Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played villainous Toecutter in the original Mad Max) and his army of bald, pale-skinned War Boys. He's imprisoned in Joe's fortress and turned into a "blood bag," supplying transfusions to sickened warriors. The fortress itself is a bad dream of male oppression, where water is hoarded, steering wheels are considered sacred objects, obese women pump breast milk for Joe's mutated offspring, and his suicidal followers believe they'll achieve Valhalla after gloriously dying in his service. One of these paint-huffingWar Boys is the manic but oddly endearing Nux (Nicholas Hoult of Warm Bodies and X-Men: Days of Future Past), who is desperate to prove himself worthy.
When Joe's top lieutenant, the one-armed Furiosa (Charlize Theron), goes on the run with his five supermodel sex slaves — "breeders" — in an 18-wheel War Rig, he unleashes a nightmarish convoy of turbo-powered vehicles to pursue. Max ends up the hood ornament for Nux, chained and muzzled to a pimped out dune buggy. Cue the thunderous chase music — or rather, include the chase music in the actual chase!
One of the amazing things about Miller is his deranged attention to detail and extravagance. As the War Boys speed across the barren Outback desert, a mobile three-story wall of speakers accompanies them, with a flame-spewing guitarist and six timpani-pounding thugs. The surrounding vehicles are a menagerie of grunge monstrosities that have tractor claws, buzz saws, flame-throwers, porcupine-like spikes, and, in the film's jaw-dropping climax, brutes on high poles swinging back and forth like mad pendulums. The stunt work is astounding, setting a high-water mark for pedal-to-the-metal mayhem, and cinematographer John Seale (returning from retirement) accentuates the scorching pandemonium by having his camera swoop and surge beneath an impossibly blue sky.
More importantly, Miller understands how to properly integrate computer imagery (fire tornadoes and gargantuan sandstorms) into his film, using it as an enhancement of rather than a substitute for real-world action. The practical effects and stunts give the film the kind of bone-jarring, visceral impact that most Hollywood and Marvel superhero movies have largely abandoned. By comparison, The Avengers: Age of Ultron seems unconvincingly cartoonish.
If there's a quibble with Fury Road it's that Max is a supporting player in the movie that bears his name. Hardy does a good job in the role but lacks Mel Gibson's charismatic swagger. He barely speaks, and mostly acts as a bystander in the film's first 40 minutes. Instead, Theron's Furiosa drives the plot, as her tough-as-nails warrior seeks both redemption and freedom from the atrocities of male rule gone mad. The feminist undertones are a welcome addition to the series, giving the women both agency and purpose. None of the characters in Miller's ferocious spectacle are particularly well-drawn, but he provides each woman enough personality to make their "We are not things!" declarations ring true. And while Max could probably be better integrated into their story, he becomes an effective witness and partner in their mission.
Mad Max: Fury Road is, essentially, a two-hour chase movie that never lets its rudimentary story slow the eye-popping action. But as allegory, the message is clear: Immortan Joe and his grotesque brethren — Gas Town's People Eater and The Bullet Farmer — have carved the wasteland into kingdoms, hoarding riches for themselves like a monstrous version of the 1 percent and subjugating the rest of humanity with gas, guns, and religion. If anything is to change it will take more than a lone mad man — we'll need a furious woman by his side.
Mad Max Fury Road is rated R and has a running time of 120 minutes.