Mad Max: Fury Road

Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron in Mad Max Fury Road

I'm just gonna put this out there: Mad Max: Fury Road is the greatest action film since Raiders of the Lost Ark. This is a thunderous achievement of pure filmmaking technique, and a film that makes most other blockbusters of the 21st century look like clumsy and amateurish. It's the first action movie director George Miller has made in three decades (his last was the ambitious but messy Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome), and his return feels like the cinematic equivalent of Moses returning from the mountain with a new set of commandments. Chief among them: Thou shalt learn how to stage an action scene.

So, is this Mad Max a sequel, a reboot, a remake or some combination of the three? It's hard to say, but let's just say that it's spiritually connected to Miller's earlier films and that you don't need to see any of the earlier films to understand this one. The first Mad Max was the story of a man being stripped of everything he loved. All of the sequels (Fury Road included) have told stories of Max attempting to re-connect with his humanity. It's a unique but effective foundation for a film series: colorful tales of a man finding psychological catharsis via car chases. Cartharsis.

Intriguingly, Fury Road requires Max (now played by Tom Hardy, The Dark Knight Rises) to spend much of the first half as a victim rather than a hero. After a quiet introduction, Max is kidnapped by a group of War Boys – demented soldiers who work for the ruthless tyrant Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played The Toecutter in Mad Max). Max's fate is an unhappy one: he'll serve as a “blood bag” for an enthusiastic young War Boy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult, X-Men: Days of Future Past). Max eventually breaks free of his chains, but he often finds himself sidelined in his own movie.

It could be argued that the film's real star is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, Prometheus), who betrays Immortan Joe by freeing the tyrant's five young wives (two of whom are pregnant) and making a reckless getaway in one of Joe's heavily-armored War Rigs. Before long, Max finds himself placed in an uneasy alliance with Furiosa, and begins to make his slow, inevitable transition from heartless mercenary to loyal ally.

Before seeing Mad Max: Fury Road, I would have told you that the greatest chase sequence of all time is the climax of George Miller's Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. With Fury Road, Miller raises the bar to the next level. Strike that: he takes the bar and flings it into the stratosphere, never to be seen again. I realize I'm being hyperbolic, but it's hard not to be hyperbolic about a director that has the chops to actually match his wild, demented ambition. There are insane sights here that reminded me of the films of Terry Gilliam and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, but I'm not sure that either of those guys – much as I love them – could have married that insanity with such polished technique.

The film essentially plays as a two-hour action scene with a few brief pauses, and every single moment of action is completely exhilarating. The film relies much heavier on practical effects than most modern blockbusters, because Miller understands that CGI is best used as icing rather than as cake batter. Most of what you're seeing on the screen is actually there, and you feel the physical weight of every smash, crash, bash and clash. More importantly, Miller ensures that even the most wildly chaotic scenes are presented with stunning clarity. You always know where everyone is, what they're doing and why they're doing it, and that patient attention to detail makes these scenes infinitely more thrilling than anything in the Bourne movies.

Miller isn't just staging nuts-and-bolts car chases, though: the action scenes in this film are completely demented. His earlier Mad Max scenes are wild, yes, but they seem positively tame in contrast to the grand buffet of bizarre sights he serves up here. This is a movie in which the villain's army is accompanied by its own live soundtrack, as devoted War Boys pound away at massive drums while Immortan Joe and his underlings unleash all manner of carnage. They also have an electric guitar player who stands atop one of the vehicles and churns out thick metal riffs. Also, his electric guitar is a flamethrower. There's a gleeful madness to the design of the weapons, vehicles and characters here, but all of it springs organically from a meticulously-crafted world. The movie is spectacularly weird, but it's never weird simply for the sake of being weird. In a certain bizarre way, everything here feels exactly right.

The technical merits alone would make Fury Road one of the crowning achievements of 21st century action cinema, but Miller also uses the action to successfully propel a surprisingly rich narrative. The director has more than mayhem on his mind, which won't come as a surprise to those who have seen the other Mad Max films. This time around, he's less concerned with the world's fuel obsession (though it certainly remains a relevant theme) and more interested in examining society's treatment of women.

Miller's world-building has always been one of his strong points (whatever you may think of the Happy Feet series, there's no denying that his vision of a karaoke-themed penguin society is a surprisingly rich and complex one), and in Fury Road he envisions the post-apocalyptic world as a nightmarish patriarchy. It's a world where many women are treated like cattle (quite literally – breast milk is one of the world's most precious commodities) and others are treated like fancy playthings (Immortan Joe refers to his wives as “treasures” when he's in a good mood and “property” when he's in a bad one). When Joe enters his mansion and discovers that his harem has disappeared, he sees a number of memorable phrases scrawled on the walls. One is a question: “Who killed the world?” Another is a statement: “We are not things.” Without spoiling the film's ultimate destination, suffice it to say that the action-packed final act plays as an assault on male possessiveness. This is an entertaining film, but also an extremely angry one. The world we actually live in is filled with Immortan Joes.

Despite an introduction that inspired tacky wolf whistles at my screening, Miller treats his female characters as human beings, not sexy accessories. Furiosa is a particularly rich creation; a welcome enhancement of the familiar “badass chick” role. She is arguably the film's toughest and most ferocious character, yes, but she is also tender and uncertain and vulnerable and all of the things that real people actually are. It's a terrific performance from an actress of seemingly limitless range, and there's no doubt in my mind that Furiosa will quickly take her place as one of cinema's definitive action heroines.

The film's other key theme is the relationship between terrorism and religion, which is certainly an uncomfortably relevant subject. “Witness me!” the War Boys cry out as they carry out suicidal acts of violence, inspired by Immortan Joe's promise that self-sacrifice will grant them entry into Valhalla. Nicholas Hoult's performance as Nux begins as gleeful insanity (his lusty cry of “What a lovely day!” has already become one of the film's signature lines), but quickly develops into something more complicated and touching. I'm not sure how Miller managed to sneak a sympathetic examination of a suicide bomber into an expensive studio blockbuster, but then I'm not sure how Miller managed to get the studio heads to sign off on most of the stuff in this movie. It's worth noting that the film was released by Warner Bros., a studio that has often been a bit more adventurous than their rivals.

I mentioned earlier that Max often finds himself sidelined in his own movie. It's worth noting that this has always been the case in this series, as he's the sort of man who enters conflicts reluctantly and makes his exits as quickly as possible. Tom Hardy has a much different skill set than Mel Gibson, but they share a certain weary sadness that often proves quietly affecting. Max values his freedom above all else, and having that freedom temporarily stripped from him deepens his ability to empathize with the oppressed. His final scene is a perfect grace note for a perfect film – he's the sort of hero who never attends his own awards banquet.

I'm in complete awe of what George Miller has accomplished here. Mad Max: Fury Road is everything an action movie should be, and a startling reminder of how few movies of this size live up to their potential. By all accounts, this film wasn't easy to make – it took a long time to get it off the ground, and the actual shooting process was quite a challenge. “It was physically hard, it was logistically hard, it was long, it was tedious, it was exhausting,” Charlize Theron admitted. All of the effort was worth it. Every ounce of blood and sweat poured into the film is right up there on the screen. Go see it on the biggest screen you can find. This is one of those moviegoing experiences you'll tell your grandkids about.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 120 minutes
Release Year: 2015