When it comes to explosive summer action movies that still feel of an artistic vision, it's going to be hard to top George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road, a triumphant return to the highs of the best of the original Mad Max trilogy, 1981's The Road Warrior. That classic from the 1980's launched star Mel Gibson's career in the U.S. and is remembered now for its brutal apocalyptic future, but also the groundbreaking 13-minute climactic chase sequence- one of the all time best in movie history. Now, more than thirty years later, a 70-year-old George Miller returns to top his own ambitious chase scene with an entire film made up of them, all increasingly erratic and adrenaline fueled in order to cement you to the edge of your seat, heart pounding as you're taken on the ride of your life, practically thrown alongside Max and Furiosa as they outrun their captors and fight to take back their lives.
There's not much more to it than that, frankly. The beauty of the original Mad Max films was their stark simplicity (minus the off the rails nuttiness of Beyond Thunderdome). They were tales of vengeance and escape, simple as that, with so little exposition as to render dialogue meaningless. Miller has gone back to the glories of that early framework, as Tom Hardy's Max barely utters a single word for the majority of the film. Taking over for Gibson, he's a silent, somewhat brooding presence haunted by vague and troubling horrors of his past, but whatever backstory there is to the character hardly matters here. When the movie starts he's a prisoner of the War Boys in Joe's Citadel, a civilization run by a tyrant following a nuclear war. He's being used as a "blood bag" for one of the sick war boys (Nicholas Hoult), and ends up a reluctant hero of circumstance as the plot kicks into gear.
Charlize Theron is essentially the co-lead of this film, an action heroine in her own right who nearly carries the movie on her shoulders, every bit Hardy's equal, if not more. In a sense she's reminiscent of strong female characters from late 70's and 80's cinema, calling to mind gender neutral heroes like Sigourney Weaver's Ripley in Alien, which shouldn't stand out nearly as much as it does because of the dearth of films starring women in recent years. As Imperator Furiosa, another captive of the Citadel and now employed as driver of a war rig, she decides one day to take matters into her own hands and smuggle out the "five wives" of Joe, sex slaves being used for breeding purposes, so they can all reclaim their freedom if they make it out of the desert and away from the Citadel alive. Joe and his vast army of goons and lunatics then take up their trucks and armored cars to go after Furiosa and the women, and Max hitches a ride strapped to the outside of War Boy Hoult's vehicle.
From that point on we're in non-stop chase mode, the intensity and vigor of which put the CGI mess of Furious 7 to shame. Miller uses digital effects to create an epic sandstorm that takes down most of the riders, but the vast majority of the action here is good old-fashioned stuntwork, the likes of which you've probably never seen before. It dwarfs anything attempted in Road Warrior, and the sheer danger of the stunts performed here force you to consider how many put their actual lives at risk speeding across the vast desert landscapes (the movie was shot in South Africa) at colossal speeds. When Max hitches his fortune to Furiosa and co. (practically by accident) the two of them become an embattled, fighting duo who wind up so in sync I'd like to see them team up again in future films- but of course, Max being the lone outsider that he is, has to wander from place to place for all eternity, never strapping his future to anyone or thing in particular.
The characters and the settings of this world do recall the wildness set up in The Road Warrior, with the brutal lives of the oppressed on full display, men and women alike. One of the nicer things about this film is the way it utilizes the female characters as more than just victims to be rescued- all of them are tough survivors put through the ringer who come out standing no matter what the cost, and in what could well be described as the ultimate "guy's movie," is that a nice change of pace or what? But the overall intent is to give audiences an adrenaline rush like no other, and I guarantee you that is what you'll find when you sit down to this movie. It's a tight, focused, energy laden and well acted action film of the sort you really never see anymore. Credit has to go to Miller, a man who came of age at a time when movies like this were being made, made some of them himself, and still has it in him to recreate this insane world and stunning, gut-punching scenes of battering eccentricity and old school practical effects that will leave you aghast. In an age where the superhero CGI spectacle is king, it's a refreshing jolt to the system to see this kind of creativity at work.
* * * 1/2