When a storyteller stops telling one particular story for 30 years, it’s safe to assume he won’t be coming back to it without having something remarkable to say. So it is with George Miller and Mad Max: Fury Road (rated R), a fourth installment in the post-apocalyptic car-chase saga that began in the late 1970s and went into hibernation after the second sequel, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, in 1985. I bought my ticket and sat down to watch this return with jaded skepticism: Another sequel no one asked for. I was wrong. Go see this movie.
The Australian-import Max films always skewed toward a particular taste: They’re not just action movies, but over-the-top acts of cinematic anarchy with a love of vehicular carnage and a fashion sense that overindulges on punk rock. The original Mad Max and Mad Max 2 (renamed The Road Warrior when it came to America) made Mel Gibson an international star, and helped define a subgenre of muscular action movies – ’roid-rage flicks, before that term even existed.
What’s new about Fury Road? Well, Gibson is gone, of course, replaced by Tom Hardy (Locke) with an ease that reminds me of just how disposable some actors can be. But the title character, onetime cop turned desert-dwelling nomad Max Rockatansky, isn’t really the star of this installment anyway. This time Miller lets the women do the driving – a revolutionary act, in a franchise that historically had no time for women. The result is jarring and extraordinary – not for politically correct reasons, but just for its bracingly different perspective. Fury Road is the Mad Max film we never knew we always wanted.
Specifically, Miller hands the keys to his franchise to Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a grim one-armed heroine with a past that motivates her to strive for change in this post-nuclear wasteland. While on a gasoline run for her boss, the disfigured hulk Immortan Joe (Hugo Keays-Byrne), she steals his five best “wives” and hits the road in search of … well, that would be telling. Max winds up tagging along, and Hardy’s taciturn loner adds value to Furiosa’s journey – especially when Joe sends teams of pale-skinned War Boys and sharpshooters after his escaped citizens.
What follows is essentially a two-hour car chase across an unnamed desert (the film was shot in Namibia), as hordes of souped-up vehicles crash, careen and explode with brutally choreographed precision. Furiosa’s stolen tanker truck is just big enough to provide its own set pieces for intimate action sequences – think of it as a moving version of the skyscraper in Die Hard – and the driver, her charges and her Mad co-pilot all hold their own in one-on-one and group encounters with Joe’s rampaging army.
The relentlessness of the enterprise would be impressive enough, but Miller has upped the ante by making Fury Road beautiful in its sweeping scale. He brought in John Seale, the cinematographer who made the dunes in The English Patient look almost sensual; but more importantly, he’s turned this perpetual-motion world into a demented circus, with eye-popping details that make every scene feel deliriously overstuffed. While the cars pound away in the background of one scene, an anonymous character slowly strides in front of the action, dressed in rags and suspended on stilts. Why? For no better reason than the decision to strap a hard-rock guitar player on the front of one of Joe’s trucks – playing an instrument that spits fire, naturally, and contributing a mobile soundtrack to all this savagery.
These extra bits are there because Miller says so, that’s why. The over-the-top elements contribute to a feeling that you’re watching one of the most full realized films in recent history – a work of cinematic courage that makes a bold argument for summertime blockbusters having the potential of true art. They don’t distract from Theron’s haunted performance as Furiosa, or from the sense of urgency to her journey. But taken together, they make Mad Max: Fury Road something special in this summer wasteland of buddy comedies and superhero slugfests. It’s a film that took 30 years to get here, and was absolutely worth the wait.