Mad Max: Fury Road creates a world of magnificent desolation, where humanity skitters from one desperate day to the next. The sun soaks the desert floor and whips molten winds across an ocean of simmering sand. The post-apocalyptic wasteland of this film serves as a character in of itself, forcefully prodding the characters to make frantic decisions in impossible situations. Critics tend to describe movies with histrionic hyperbole–a non-stop thrill ride, or an all-out adrenaline rush—but Mad Max: Fury Road delivers exactly that: The action isn’t so much fast-paced as it is a dead, sweaty sprint, one that only occasionally allows the movie to gasp for air. This is the rare sequel–or soft reboot, whatever–that pays homage to its predecessors without strip-mining their legacy, and actually builds on what they accomplished by refining the qualities that made them great in the first place. Fury Road is a technical triumph of action and atmosphere that stands as one of the most exciting, jaw-dropping films ever made.
The first Mad Max movie–starring a young and hungry Mel Gibson–found mankind still clinging to the flapping tatters of civilization: Sure, things weren’t great, but you could still see trees, grass, highways, and houses. With each successive film, the world looked less and less like what we now know and more like a superheated Martian landscape. By Fury Road, humanity is segregated into grubby little fiefdoms, each headed by its own monstrous warlord and each peddling its own basic neccessity–Gas Town, The Bullet Farm, etc. In the opening scenes, Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy, who growls in a deep baritone) is captured by a particularly nasty despot named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the young biker villain in the first Mad Max). Joe is a burly, wheezing old man, his pasty body pocked with festering boils. Joe sends Furiosa (Charlize Theron, all bad-ass), one of his top lieutenants, on an errand to fetch supplies from the neighboring strongholds. What Joe doesn’t know is that Furiosa has smuggled away his harem of young “breeder”-wives and is making a mad dash into the abyss. Max finds his way into Furiosa’s convoy and the two form a tempestuous alliance to wriggle away from Immortan Joe’s lecherous grasp.
If that sounds plot-heavy, it’s not. Director George Miller–at the helm for every eccentric installment in the series–serves up a lean-meat Spaghetti Western masquerading as post-punk nihilism. Dialogue is so non-essential that Hardy’s Max spends the first chunk of the movie muffled by a kinky metal mask. His Man with No Name takes a clear back seat to Furiosa, whose depth and humanity make her the movie’s anchor. If Miller’s opus has a clear flaw, it’s that he never finds time to throw his protagonist on the stove to cook. Max spends the movie raw and waiting for a little seasoning that never comes. Like the movie, he’s all visceral, all in the moment. Just a short scene or two of exposition–maybe with a smidge of actual dialogue–would’ve given a strong presence like Hardy a little more to do.
But that’s a mild quibble. Most action movies are like dishwater–soggy and weighted with tired and tepid writing and direction. By comparison, Fury Road is Brut Champagne, vibrant and relentlessly exciting. Some may find it too adrenaline-soaked, too minimal, too weird, but there’s no denying this movie is alive. Refreshing. The cinematography and editing (John Seale and Margaret Sixel, respectively) are as striking as any movie in recent memory. And Fury Road’s a rarity: Most sequels, remakes, and reboots are hollow cash-grabs, but Miller utilized his massive budget and a reservoir of patience to make the story he always wanted–a gorgeous, visually poetic action movie, set during a global Chernobyl.