Diesel and dust, blood and fire: Mad Max: Fury Road runs on all of it, flooding its fuel tanks to stay in perpetual motion. Forgive the wordplay, but this is the kind of movie that turns even timid drivers into fanatical car nuts. For two breathless hours, the vehicular mayhem never lets up. Spiked dune buggies, like porcupines on wheels, burn rubber and scratch metal. All-terrain gas guzzlers flip through the air, their rusty steel frames crunching and combusting upon impact. On the hoods of these speeding war machines, ravaged travelers battle with fists, pistols, and even chainsaws. To single out a favorite image from this flurry of nonstop shock and awe would require committing all of it to memory. But here’s one contender: a masked musician, perched high on a mobile stage, serenading his fellow marauders with triumphant power chords. He supplies the appropriate soundtrack for this rock-’n’-roll apocalypse. Also, his guitar is a flamethrower.
With Fury Road, director George Miller returns to the lawless, oil-deprived future of his seminal series for the first time in three decades. It was worth the wait. Each Mad Max film has been bigger and more expensive than the last, the scale expanding exponentially from the frugal road rage of the 1979 original to the increasingly elaborate dystopias of The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome. Here, the budget races across the nine-digit line and it shows. Some directors don’t know what to do with that much money, relinquishing control and losing personality in the face of hefty studio investment. Not George Miller. Rather than cede demolition duties to a digital team, the filmmaker pours most of his pennies into the lost arts of daredevil stunt work and real pyrotechnics. The result feels like the closest Miller has ever come to getting the noisy, spectacular action movie in his head—the Mad Max he could only dream about in his fledgling years—up there on-screen.
In the age of Ultron, there’s something comforting about a franchise free of continuity, where no new installment demands homework. Fury Road dispenses with the niceties of expository catch-up, getting audiences on its titular escape route as quickly as possible. Most of the film unfolds like one long car chase, a feverish pursuit across the vast, arid expanses of the Namib Desert (filling in for the Outback). Max is up against another fearsome warlord, a bulky despot in a skull mask, played—unrecognizably, but still notably—by the bad guy from the first movie, Hugh Keays-Byrne. Immortan Joe, a heavy cut from the same ragged cloth as Lord Humungus, rules his desert oasis with an iron fist, doling out the water supply to his slave labor in drops and instilling a literal death wish in his army of chalk-white “war boys.” He’s cruising for a dismembering.
For the first time ever, the road warrior himself isn’t played by Mel Gibson, who may now be too crazy even to occupy the role of—in the new movie’s parlance—“a man reduced to a single instinct: survival.” Tom Hardy, that handsome bruiser with the low English mutter and the tank-like build, makes for a suitable replacement. Introduced snacking on a live lizard in the calm-before-the-storm of the opening scene, his Max is meaner, terser, and more unchained than the charismatic antihero that made Gibson a star. He’s also, in some respects, a sideline attraction. One of Miller’s boldest choices is to put Max in the passenger seat of the narrative, letting him ride shotgun with a metal-armed Charlize Theron, in what may be the best action heroine performance since Sigourney Weaver duked it out with a queen alien.
The plot, thin by design, finds Theron’s gone-rogue soldier slave Furiosa smuggling the villain’s harem of “breeder” wives onto a souped-up tanker and heading for (literally) greener pastures. Miller is said to have brought Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, in as a consultant on his script. If Fury Road isn’t quite a full-blown feminist blockbuster, it almost gets there: This is a film, after all, where imprisoned women rebel against an abusive patriarch with designs on their ovaries, putting the hurt on his legions of slobbering man-children. Speaking of which, the only other vaguely sympathetic male character, besides Max, is one of those pasty war pawns—a hyperactive, glory-obsessed drone played by Nicholas Hoult. Bellowing “What a day!” as he barrels into an epic sand storm, this zealot is a source of sick laughs, until Miller locates a strange poignancy in his desire for a glorious death.
Max, by contrast, remains most interesting as a force of pure mythic destruction, drifting into the conflict basically by accident. (His survivor’s guilt, expressed through sudden flashes of the loved ones he couldn’t save, is among the film’s least compelling ideas.) Likewise, Fury Road reaches its most transcendent heights when at maximum velocity, considerations of character and theme taking a backseat to an awe-inspiring onslaught of (mostly practical) effects. Miller’s years in animation, seemingly squandering his gifts on those innocuous Happy Feet movies, have provided him an almost limitless imagination—the ability to envision such Tex Avery touches as vertical poles that send enemy combatants swaying in and out of battle. At the same time, Miller keeps everything physical, putting flesh-and-blood humans perilously close to spinning tires and billowing flames. For all the chaos erupting at all times, we never lose track of what’s going on, because it’s been staged not just with diabolical mischief, but also total clarity. What a movie.