With Mad Max: Fury Road, director George Miller delivers the sort of jumbo-sized entertainment that makes you break out in appreciative laughter: The breadth of his imagination and showmanship leaves you giddy. Miller, a former doctor turned filmmaker, is 70, and he hasn’t directed a live-action movie since 1998. He had been trying to jumpstart Fury Road for more than a decade, which helps to explain the ferociousness with which he tears into this material (you can picture him on location in Africa’s punishing Namib Desert, beaming and thinking “Finally!”).
At this point, Miller doesn’t have anything to prove. But the film makes obvious how much he has been wanting to get back to work, and he unleashes that pent-up enthusiasm in a two-hour blast of relentless excitement that never becomes tiresome or oppressive. This is a huge yet surprisingly fleet and brisk picture that celebrates the visceral, primal pleasures of movies.
With the help of John Seale, the 72-year-old Oscar-winner who also shot The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley, and a magnificent score by Junkie XL, which runs the gamut from lush orchestral compositions to throbbing electronica, Miller has achieved the sort of movie that is all too rare these days: A big-budget summer blockbuster unlike any you’ve seen before. Fury Road makes Avengers:Age of Ultron look like an adorable child’s toy (nice try, Joss Whedon!) and reveals Furious 7 to be the cheap, hollow cartoon it always was. The movie has the same jaw-dropping impact as The Road Warrior did in 1982, except this one goes much further, because the radical advances in filmmaking (along with that $150 million budget) allow Miller to do things he could only dream about before.
Best of all, Miller avoids the trap that snares practically every other filmmaker making genre pictures today. Fury Road is filled with computer-generated images and effects, but they’re used as embellishments, not replacements for the real thing. Almost every car crash and stunt you see on the screen was done live in front of the cameras. There isn’t a moment in the movie when you’re jarred out of the story by a blatantly fake image, not even the part in which an oil rig racing through the desert carrying precious human cargo is hijacked by lunatics (performed by Cirque du Soleil athletes!) driving alongside in buggies using poles to vault through the air and land atop the truck. You have to see it to believe it.
The filmmaking (including the superb editing by Jason Ballantine and Margaret Sixel, who have cut the movie at a thunderous speed without sacrificing clarity or confusing your eye) is the true star of Fury Road, but the actors don’t fare badly either. Taking over for Mel Gibson, who had simply grown too old to reprise one of his signature roles, Tom Hardy has little dialogue: Max Rockatansky, the former cop driven insane whose sole purpose is to survive in a bombed-out post-apocalyptic wasteland, isn’t much for chit-chat. What the part requires is a great physicality — an ability to convey emotions and humor and personality through action — and Hardy turns out to be a natural-born Buster Keaton. He’s able to sell far-fetched stunts as easily as ferocious, close-quarters combat, but he can go smaller, too: In a long sequence in which he’s tied to the front of a speeding car like a hood ornament, an iron muzzle strapped to his head while he’s being drained of his blood like a human IV drip, Hardy conveys Max’s horror and rage using only his eyes and the bulging veins in his neck.
The few times he does speak, Hardy gives Max a guttural growl with a vague accent that is hard to pin down: He looks (and sounds) like he’s lived through thousands of miles of hard road. But one of the best things about Fury Road is that although Max gets the title, the spotlight is mostly on Imperator Furiosa (a fantastic Charlize Theron), a female road warrior who has fled a primitive city ruled by a monstrous tyrant (Hugh Keays-Byrne) with five of his fertile “breeder” slaves in tow, hoping to take them to the “green place” she remembers from her childhood, a paradise amidst the desert wasteland that is all that remains of our planet.
Furiosa is the secret weapon in Fury Road: She and her charges (who are all supermodel beautiful yet still register as real, dimensional women) are the focus of the sort of story that is almost always dominated by male characters. Despite its fantastical, often grotesque trappings and its vague steampunk underpinnings, Fury Road is really a ferocious Western – Stagecoach on wheels – a feature-length chase picture in which people make a break out of Dodge aboard a stolen tractor-trailer and head for safer territory (that’s about all the plot there is, really; Miller doesn’t bother with cumbersome backstories or explanations). The fact that the person driving that rig happens to be a one-armed woman who can throw down like a man without losing her femininity is one of the many surprises of this wonderful, thrilling adventure, which also manages to make time for small moments of beautiful creativity (in one shot, what initially appears to be a giant sand dune turns out to be Max buried under the dirt).
Mad Max: Fury Road has everything one could want from a Road Warrior sequel (let’s just pretend Beyond Thunderdome never happened), from Miller’s R-rated gallows humor to his ability to visualize fantastical things and capture them on film in a way no one else would think to do. Spielberg will be jealous. And I haven’t even mentioned the film’s surprising surge of emotion in its final 30 minutes, or the infusion of nutty tenderness Nicholas Hoult brings to the picture as a dutiful, suicidal soldier, or the guy riding on the front of one of the vehicles in the bad guys’ convoy, playing a double-neck electric guitar that spews fire – a minor side character who practically steals the movie without uttering a word. Summer hasn’t officially started yet, and already the film to beat for the title of the season’s best has arrived. Go ahead. Get excited.
Cast: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Josh Helman.
Director: George Miller.
Screenwriters: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nico Lathouris.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 120 minutes. Brief vulgar language, intense violence, disturbing imagery, vehicular mayhem. Playing at area theaters.