How to describe the brutal and brilliant cinematic fireball that director George Miller hurls at us in Mad Max: Fury Road? Try hell on wheels, given the vehicular obsession that drives the film. It's been 30 years since Miller, 70, moved on from the Mad Max trilogy that starred Mel Gibson as Max Rockatansky, a road warrior seeking vengeance for his murdered family. The place? A dystopian wasteland ruled by bike gangs and outlaws of every sadistic stripe. In the years since, Miller – an Aussie ER-doctor-turned-filmmaker – has gone on to the family-friendly oasis of Babe: Pig in the City and the animated penguins of two Happy Feet musical hits.
Welcome back, George. We missed you in the land of the dark and twisted. The long-incubating Mad Max: Fury Road is an R-rated, rocket- fueled romper-stomper, a nonstop chase epic powered by a reported $150 million budget and Miller's indisputable visionary genius. One look at Max, and the kiddie fans of Happy Feet would be traumatized for life.
Does this ride down Fury Road always make sense? Not really. So what? Just go with it. The great Brit actor Tom Hardy steps in for Gibson as Max and does the role proud. As he tells us in voiceover, "My name is Max. My world is fire." Gotcha, buddy. Haunted by visions of his lost child, Max is captured by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who also played the villainous Toecutter in the first Mad Max), a wacked-out warlord who controls his subjects by controlling their water supply. Joe's elite soldiers, the inbred, head-shaved war boys, smear on white body paint, swill breast milk to counteract radiation and enjoy the fanatical fantasy of an erotic afterlife: "I live, I die. I live again!"
The plot really goes vroom when Joe's trusted ally Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a warrior with a mechanical left arm, goes rogue and takes off in an armored truck with Joe's five breeder wives, played by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoe Kravitz, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton and Riley Keough. (Keough is Elvis' grandkid – how's that for iconography?) In hot pursuit are the war boys, led by Nux (a terrific Nicholas Hoult). The boys lash Max to a speeding car while tapping his arm for a grisly blood transfusion.
Exposition has no place in a plot – cooked up by Miller and co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris – that's rooted in three words: Go! Go! Go! That the characters come through so vividly is a tribute to the actors. At first, Hardy is stuck behind a mask, similar to the muzzle he wore as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. "I bet you want that damn thing off your face," says Furiosa. When she sees him whole, Furiosa forms a bond with Max that's all in the eyes. Forget dialogue. Miller does. Hardy and Theron make a dynamite team, but this is Theron's show. She's a knockout in a sensational performance that blends grit and gravity and becomes the film's bruised heart and soul. The feminist core may surprise fanboys, but it lifts the film far above the testosterone herd.
As Furiosa seeks redemption with Max at her side, Miller keeps the images coming at you like a meteor shower, from a ferocious sandstorm to war boys catapulting from vehicle to vehicle and the scalding sight of a dude shredding his guitar as the world burns. Miller downplays green-screens and digital effects. He wants it real. The stunt work is state-of-the-art as bodies and vehicles collide against a tangible landscape. The film was mostly shot in Africa's Namib Desert by the gifted John Seale (The Perfect Storm, The English Patient), 72. Miller coaxed Seale out of retirement for the occasion.
And what a rare occasion it is, with award-caliber contributions from editor Margaret Sixel, Miller's wife, to the wondrous, witty costumes of Jenny Bevin and the tumultuous score by Dutch master Junkie XL. Mad Max: Fury Road kicked my ass hard. It'll kick yours. So get prepped for a new action classic. You won't know what hit you.