LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - Thirty years have passed since our last visit to George Miller's sun-scorched post-apocalyptic wasteland, and yet "worth the wait" still seems a puny response to the two hours of ferocious, unfettered B-movie bliss offered by "Mad Max: Fury Road." , this expertly souped-up return to Max Rockatansky's world of "fire and blood" finds Tom Hardy confidently donning Mel Gibson's well-worn leather chaps. Still, the tersely magnetic British star turns out to be less of a revelation than his glowering co-lead, Charlize Theron, decisively claiming her place (with apologies to Tina Turner) as the most indelible female presence in this gas-guzzling, testosterone-fueled universe. It remains to be seen whether Theron will boost distaff turnout for Warner Bros.' heavily marketed May 15 U.S. release, but either way, word-of-mouth excitement over the film's beautifully brutal action sequences should lend it tremendous commercial velocity through the summer and beyond.
Miller may be better known of late for directing the (ostensibly) younger-skewing likes of Babe: Pig in the City (1998) and the two Happy Feet musicals, but for the many who have longed for him to return to his down-and-dirty Ozploitation roots, Fury Road will seem nothing less than the fulfillment of a dream -- not least the writer-director's own. To describe the production as long-gestating doesn't do justice to the sheer litany of setbacks, delays, overhauls, recastings and budget inflations that have plagued the picture since Miller first envisioned it years ago, when it might still have been plausible for Gibson to reprise the role that made him a star. Suffice to say that for all the obstacles the writer-director and his collaborators endured in the interim, the finished film feels entirely of a piece with its three predecessors, never mind that the combined costs of the latter are dwarfed by Fury Road's budget (reportedly well over $150 million).
We are, admittedly, a long way from the lean, unnerving outback fable of Mad Max (1979), and an even longer way from the weirdly arresting, kid-friendly detours of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). Vastly more complex on a technical scale but simpler on a conceptual one, Fury Road is, for all intents and purposes, a two-hour car chase interrupted by a brief stretch of anxious downtime, and realized with the sort of deranged grandiosity that confirms Miller's franchise has entered its decadent phase. All the more remarkable, then, that the movie still manages to retain its focus, achieving at once a shrewd distillation and a ferocious acceleration of its predecessors' sensibility. There is gargantuan excess here, to be sure -- and no shortage of madness -- but there is also an astonishing level of discipline.
Wisely, Miller and his co-writers (the comicbook artist Brendan McCarthy and original Mad Max actor Nico Lathouris) seem to have taken their cues from the spare yet sturdy narrative architecture of the series' acknowledged high point, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), whose influence can be felt even in the new film's bare-bones prologue. Years after some unexplained cataclysm, the world has fallen into lawless disarray, as Hardy's Max briefly explains while being pursued across a landscape of hot orange dunes and endless horizons (the Namibian desert stood in for Australia this time around). The chase soon ends with our hero captured, imprisoned and tortured in the Citadel, a desert stronghold ruled by a despotic warlord known as the Immortan (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who has enslaved what remains of the local populace by exercising miserly control over the water supply (inadvertently bearing out Keegan-Michael Key's California-drought joke at the recent White House Correspondents' Dinner).
Fans will remember (if not necessarily recognize) the Australian character actor Keays-Byrne as having played the Toecutter in the original Mad Max, and his appearance here suggests a hideous, heavy-set reincarnation of that earlier villain, complete with snaggle-toothed face mask and kinky breathing apparatus. His male soldiers, or "war boys," show their respect for their leader by sharing his gloriously awful fashion sense -- their torsos branded and bared, covered in white body paint, and blinged out with shrunken-head necklaces and other demonic accoutrements. The film's first half-hour alone is a marvel of freakshow aesthetics: Blood banks and breast pumps are among the Immortan's more imaginative means of controlling and sustaining his people, while skulls figure prominently in Colin Gibson's elaborately grotesque production design and Jenny Beavan's richly imagined costumes, which are at once outlandish and pinpoint-precise.
Setting the plot in motion -- and lending the film the swift, steady undercurrent of rage suggested by its title -- are the five beautiful young women the Immortan has taken as his "wives" (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoe Kravitz, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee and Courtney Eaton), whom he keeps locked away and forces to bear his children. Their defender and rescuer is Imperator Furiosa (Theron), a formidable warrior with a mechanical left arm, who is tasked with replenishing the Citadel's fuel reserves at nearby Gastown; she seizes the opportunity to smuggle the women out of the stronghold in a massive armored truck. When the Immortan sends his war boys after them, with Max himself lashed (temporarily, at least) to the front of a minion's car, the proceedings kick into high gear.
As evidenced by everything from the original Mad Max trilogy to Babe: Pig in the City, Miller is a wizardly orchestrator of onscreen mayhem, and in the two lengthy chase sequences that bookend Fury Road, he ascends to that rare level of action-movie nirvana where a filmmaker's sheer exuberance in every detail becomes one with the audience's pleasure. Everything we see here seems to have sprung fully formed from the same cheerfully demented imagination -- whether it's the cars that look like overgrown porcupines on wheels, the poles that catapult the war boys from one vehicle to the next, or the fiery windstorm that sets in mid-chase, making short work of some of the less well-armored participants. Adding yet another frisson of excitement (as well as a hint of anti-terrorist subtext) is the fact that the war boys aren't just killers but fanatics, brainwashed into believing eternal paradise awaits them if they die in battle. This may explain their devil-may-care habit of crawling over and under their vehicles while they're in motion, like kids navigating a jungle gym at 150 miles per hour.
Miller conjures a vibe somewhere between monster truck rally in hell and Burning Man death-metal concert -- as signaled by the very funny inclusion of a rocker whose fire-breathing electric guitar seems to be at least one source of the pummeling, wall-to-wall score (by the Dutch musician Junkie XL, who recently scored Run All Night and Divergent). The magnificence of the below-the-line contributions can hardly be overstated, particularly the outrageously acrobatic fight choreography and the seamless visual-effects work, all lensed by d.p. John Seale in dynamic, enveloping widescreen images. If it sounds interminable -- and for viewers not on the film's specific wavelength, even a minute of this stuff will be hard to take -- rest assured that Miller proves himself a maestro not only when he's slamming huge metal objects together, but also when attending to such subtler matters as pacing and modulation (with the invaluable assistance of his editor and wife, Margaret Sixel).
Notably, our engagement doesn't wane even when Fury Road downshifts into an interlude of tense, close-quarters intimacy, as Max, lone road warrior that he is, must reluctantly endure the company of Furiosa and her five comely refugees. The feminist undercurrents rippling through this movie are by turns sincere, calculated and teasingly tongue-in-cheek: Our first good glimpse of the wives, clad in skimpy white rags and gathered around a water spout, plays like a vision out of Girls Gone Wild: Co-ed Car Wash. Even when they join in the fight, it can be hard to tell where erotic fantasy ends and empowerment fantasy begins, which is very much in keeping with the film's unapologetically grindhouse attitude. Yet if Fury Road doesn't deliver as pure a hit of girl-power retribution as say, Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof, it's hard not to respect the dramatic stature with which Miller elevates his female characters; Huntington-Whiteley and Kravitz, in particular, embody the sort of quiet defiance that ensures these women, though victimized, are never reduced to mere victims.
"You know hope is a mistake," Max warns Furiosa late in the game. But even as it plunges us back into a vividly familiar realm of nihilism and despair, Mad Max: Fury Road never feels even remotely cynical -- or exploitative. There's nothing but tenderness in the fiercely protective manner with which Furiosa and the five wives regard one another, or in the key supporting role of Nux (a wonderful Nicholas Hoult), an eagerly aggressive young war boy whose dramatic shift in perspective takes the story in an unexpectedly poignant, and romantic, direction. As for Max himself, he remains a thin, tenuous figure at best -- less a fleshed-out character than an avatar of revenge and survival -- which is precisely what has made him such a durably iconic creation over the years.
Mad Max 2.0 comes saddled with a slightly different tragic origin story, referenced in quick, hallucinatory memory blips involving a young girl (Coco Jack Gillies), but we accept Hardy in the role instinctively -- aided by the cruel iron mask that obscures much of his face until the movie's midpoint, but also by the actor's taciturn charisma. Still, there's no denying that Miller and his collaborators have subtly conspired to put our hero in the passenger seat of his own reboot, while deftly ceding the spotlight to Theron's Furiosa, and the characters' rapport is as physically electrifying as it is emotionally charged. Tellingly, plans are reportedly in the works for a Fury Road sequel called Mad Max: Furiosa, raising the expectation -- perhaps unreasonable, on the strength of Miller's powerhouse movie -- that this duo's finest hour may yet be ahead of them.
By Justin Chang for Variety
Mad Max: Fury Road opens in Australia on Thursday.