Thirty years is a long time to wait for a sequel. If not for the passage of time, though, then George Miller’s career trajectory since 1985 may have initially been reason enough to regard the latest installment in the dystopian Mad Max series with caution. The new film stars Tom Hardy as Max Rockatansky with Charlize Theron as his co-lead, a casting coup that earned goodwill from intrigued onlookers when first announced. When Miller showed San Diego Comic-Con attendees footage from the unfinished product in 2014, any and all initial doubt turned to buzzing fervor. Early apprehensions weren’t misguided. They were just misplaced. If it takes a movie three decades to galumph into theaters, the least you can hope for is that it ends up being good.
Expecting more than just “good” feels like asking much, but Miller is clearly the generous type. Mad Max: Fury Road is better than just good. It’s “great,” perhaps even better, though piling on superlatives too quickly, too soon might do the film a disservice. If Miller had simply aimed just above the line of “serviceable,” he still might have sated his audience’s action cravings. But after maintaining a holding pattern for so long, “satisfactory” wouldn’t have passed muster. Miller knew it, too, so he decided to swing for the fences. Try naming a modern blockbuster that has as much chutzpah as Mad Max: Fury Road. You can’t, because there isn’t one. This is what happens when you lay out all your crazy on the screen at once: glorious, crackling entertainment.
Mad Max: Fury Road occurs an unknown number of days after the last chronicle of Max’s life and times. He’s on the run, natch, and as the movie starts he’s captured by lunatics who drag him back to a desert canyon fortress and turn him into a living IV bag for Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a soldier in the army of the wheezy, bigamist tyrant Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, returning to the series after playing the villain in the original film). Joe is a festering representation of patriarchy who hoards a limitless supply of water from his parched subjects and maintains a fully stocked personal harem. He’s a horrific antagonist for the ages.
When one of his lieutenants, Furiosa (Theron), betrays him by liberating his trophy wives (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zöe Kravitz, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, and Courtney Eaton), he and his fleet of tricked-out apocalypse-mobiles pursue them posthaste. By chance Furiosa and Max end up locking horns in the fracas, but they realize that each needs the other to stay alive. So they pile into her war rig with the emancipated girls and put pedal to the metal, with Joe’s legion of maniacs at their heels and Nux dangling to their tanker. There isn’t much setup here beyond that. Mad Max: Fury Road is just an explosive extended car chase, occasionally interrupted with interludes of economic character development and world-building.
Every single dollar of Mad Max: Fury Road’s reported $150 million budget is in the frame at all times, but Miller is so unpretentious that you won’t catch the price tag. Real people cruise in real vehicles across real expanses of desert. When the film does lean on computers, it’s to fill in the margins or summon the occasional dust storm. Miller defines his aesthetic through physical texture, tells story through action, and shows no interest in the routine of contemporary Hollywood spectacle. He’s made a two-hour Star Wars cantina scene stuffed to the gunwales with insanity. Immortan Joe’s vanguard includes a car mounted with piles of speakers and a nutjob wielding a double-necked guitar that belches fire. It’s both the most and the least demented idea the movie has on tap.
The film also stands alone, good news for anyone who hasn’t seen the first three movies. You can walk into the theater blind and everything that happens from start to finish will make sense. That’s Miller’s intention, of course, but kudos to the man for pulling it off with such unhinged aplomb, and for spending heaps of Warner Bros.’ money on what is essentially a feminist action movie. The marquee features Max’s name, but the film’s true hero is Furiosa, a freedom fighter battling against an oppressive male regime. Just when you think Mad Max: Fury Road is going to peg Max as the film’s savior, Max gives the credit to Furiosa. She’s the character driven by a purpose. He’s just a survivor.
Hardy and Theron both lend muted gravitas to their roles—she has more spoken dialogue than him, if only just—and act through gesture and expression more than anything else. It’s clear, though, that this is her movie more than it is his, a huge accomplishment in light of the film’s intrinsic masculinity. Mad Max: Fury Road is an inclusive effort that invites us to join its heroes in breaking down gender dichotomies. Miller has made a phenomenal action film with a righteous cause, a movie that layers smart commentary atop jaw-dropping set pieces. May he ride eternal, shiny and chrome.
Director: George Miller
Writers: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nico Lathouris
Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Nicholas Hoult, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zöe Kravitz, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton
Release Date: May 15, 2015
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65 percent Vermont craft brews.