Scorched red earth, leather-clad bikers, deranged metalheads and a stone-faced avenging protagonist of few words: These are the familiar hallmarks of George Miller's relentlessly satisfying "Mad Max" universe, which remains captivating as ever in the Australian director's long-awaited fourth entry, "Mad Max: Fury Road," a kinetic tone poem in blockbuster clothing.
It has been 30 years since the last anarchic outing, "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome" — so long that the iconic role of bereaved cop-turned-drifter in a dead world can no longer belong to aging, disgraced Mel Gibson. But the muted, hulking Tom Hardy is a natural fit for taking Max into another round of energizing showdowns between various demented figures battling for superiority in a twisted, fast-paced arena imported from the earlier movies, but never this spectacularly realized. Like Max himself, Miller's stripped-down approach to staging intense and involving action sequences stands alone.
Before all else, the movie's familiarity marks a return to form. In the years since his previous "Max" outings, Miller has developed a peculiar filmography of mainstream works that smuggle mature themes into popular material that never demands it — most successfully with "Babe: Pig in the City" and the first "Happy Feet" — even if the sheer cinematic virtuosity of the "Mad Max" movies went latent. Judging by the constant forward momentum of "Fury Road," Miller had a lot to get out of his system: The movie starts at a high velocity and barely ever slows down.
Max has come a long way since his family's death in the initial 1979 entry turned him into a solitary drifter in this dreary milieu, but it doesn't take long to pick up where we left off. In an opening chase scene, Max's typically reliable Interceptor gets knocked around by a group of white-faced marauders that lock him up in the dungeon run by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a grill-masked lunatic who lords over his minions in a horrific desert outpost where the dictator hogs a water supply and locks up his women to breed his army of ghoulish followers.
Within minutes, we're treated to roaring engines, dust-caked showdowns, a gripping chase through claustrophobic tunnels and a dangling crane. Miller swiftly beefs up these scenes with tidbits of backstory, as Max sees flashes of phantoms from the traumatic past that still haunts him. It's just enough to provide a reminder of his chaotic present. "My world is fire and blood," he intones in an opening voiceover, which is just as much a literal description of the ensuing mayhem as a figurative one.
Despite a visionary set design that consolidates the biker aesthetic of the second film with the grimly carnivalesque look of the second, "Fury Road" maintains a fairly straightforward narrative trajectory as it barrels ahead, almost entirely focused on a series of rapid-fire chase scenes.
After he escapes from a debilitating position strapped to the hood of his vehicle by one of his demonic captors, Max teams up with a throng of female slaves led by the trenchant Furiosa (a bald, scowling Charlize Theron, intimidating for reasons beyond her character's metallic arm) to escape Immortan Joe's daunting advances from behind the wheels of souped-up monster truck.
Furiosa hopes to pawn off her supplies and find a legendary world of greenery she remembers from her youth, while forming a tentative alliance with Max that deepens as the pair survive a series of violent encounters. Unwilling to trust anyone, but committed to survival at all costs, their unruly chemistry is the closest thing to a tight bond in the series since Max's early family days. But their toughness has nothing on maniacal foe Immortan Joe — whose appearance recalls, oddly enough, the muffled Bane character Hardy played in "The Dark Knight Returns." However, Joe retains a far more menacing edge thanks to the sparsity of details surrounding his rule. Even as he's protected by throngs of white-powered foot soldiers at every turn, Joe's a terrifically effective super villain unafraid to get his hands dirty.
Furiosa's own clan, who call themselves the Five Wives (a group that includes Zoe Kravitz and Abbey Lee) are a largely indistinguishable bunch, although their own uneasy alliance with one of Joe's pale-faced offspring (Nicholas Hoult) — who defects to the other side after he's inadvertently trapped in their truck — comes as close as this movie gets to conveying a semblance of warmth. Overall, however, the personalities in "Fury Road" remain gruff, one-note creations, but that's at least fitting for this distinctive world that hits one note time and again so well.
Miller brings a near-abstract quality to the proceedings that elevates from them from the specifics of the story. As Max and Furiosa speed through the desert with Joe and his team in hot pursuit, the procession moves through the barren environments as though traversing through grim sonnets.
Most dialogue is defined by concise declarations or punchy asides on par with the expressionistic despair of the scenery. The words "Who killed the world?" are scrawled on walls. Max's inevitable pep talk with Furiosa finds him declaring "Hope is a mistake," while the psychos chasing after him gear up for martyrdom they envision as "riding to Valhalla." The sense of peril, culling from historical and mythological reference points, is at once poignant and fragmentary.
However, the main effective ingredient in "Fury Road" is its ongoing motion. The chases largely pivot on insane car-to-car acrobatics, narrow exchanges of gunfire and metal smashing together at ridiculously high speeds. Inspiring fear and giddy excitement in equal measures, "Fury Road" suggests the unruly collision of "Ben Hur" and a Road Runner cartoon.
Over the course of two hours, there are times when the pattern of tense shootouts and erratic outbursts strain from redundancy. Miller sometimes emphasizes the over-the-top zaniness to a distracting degree. (One recurring flourish, a lunatic guitarist on a moving platform blasting out distorted riffs alongside the action, feels too excessive for its own good.)
Nevertheless, Miller keeps the action fluid from scene to scene, offering a bracing alternative to countless murky CGI spectacles that dominate Hollywood studio product today. In "Fury Road," special effects come secondary to the visual marvels of the color palette meted out by cinematographer John Seale at every turn. One standout moment revolves around a ginormous environmental storm that calls to mind "Wizard of Oz." Nighttime scenes are filled with silhouettes against a landscape baked in blue. Orange-red flare guns pierce the barren sky. In essence, Miller has made a silent film enhanced, but not defined, by its meaty sounds.
The vivid post-apocalyptic scenery pays homage to Miller's homegrown tradition. In the years since the last movie, "Mad Max" has been welded into the DNA of modern action and sci-fi movies while inspiring countless imitators. But no matter these lofty expectations, Miller avoids taking the overwrought material for granted by pushing it beyond pure stylistic posturing.
There's rich thematic material here that extends beyond the story's immediate appeal: Long before Miller's script closes with a quote by Albert Camus, it delivers a cautionary tale against the threat of global warming, depicts the greed and desperation surrounding natural resources, and celebrates the prospects of civilian uprising under ridiculously daunting conditions. Insert your metaphorical reading here.
"Sooner or later," announces one rebellious slave, "someone pushes back." The underlying thrill of "Fury Road" stems from watching those words come to life on several levels. "Mad Max" doesn't just depict conflicts with evildoers in a tattered existence. It delivers a rare alternative to aggressively stupid action movies. At a time of great need, Max rides again.
"Mad Max: Fury Road" opens wide on May 15. It premieres at the Cannes Film Festival this week.