“Mad Max: Fury Road” spent decades in development limbo before director George Miller could successfully resurrect his end-times franchise to follow a former highway patrolman (Tom Hardy) across a savage desert populated by bloodthirsty brutes. Finally, the movie is here. Hardy stars alongside Charlize Theron (whose Ripley-esque role is already generating buzz), Nicholas Hoult and Zoe Kravitz. Warner Bros. opens this film May 15.
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.
It’s like “Grand Theft Auto” revamped by Hieronymus Bosch, with a dab of Robert Rodríguez’s “From Dusk Till Dawn.” Tom Hardy plays Max Rockatansky himself, the former interceptor lawman and petrolhead of the original movies, driven to extreme measures by the murder of his wife and child. This film does not appear to run sequentially from the previous trilogy; it’s more a general reimagining of the first, or the overall raddled mood-scape of all three.
The sort of exhilarating gonzo entertainment that makes even the nuttier “Fast and Furious” movies look like Autopia test drives, 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 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.
One could plausibly observe that Fury Road is basically The Road Warrior on a new generation of steroids, and no doubt some critics will leave it at that; like the second and best film in the series, this one is mostly devoted to maniacal anarchic goons chasing Max and his small group of rebels across a scenically parched desert and leaving some of the most spectacularly destroyed vehicles ever seen in their dust. The new film certainly boasts a higher percentage of flat-out amazing action than any of its predecessors, and that’s probably enough said for most of its potential audience.
This is the richest of the four films thematically. It’s the best script in the series overall. The way it grapples with ideas of both patriarchy and matriarchy, and the world feels lived in. It overwhelmed me. It was so much more than I hoped it would be, so much more than Hollywood has convinced us any blockbuster needs to be. George Miller is still the King; long live Mad Max.
“Fury Road” comes as such a relief in a summer that already—it’s only May!—seems destined for doldrums that I want to use big declaratives in the hope that people will go see this thing and make it the hit it deserves to be. We’re not talking about a particularly profound film here—survival is its chief big, blockish theme—but it is the rare mega-budget movie that has both heft and playfulness; it’s dark but fun, a churning orgy of sand and fire that pirouettes with balletic grace. It’s startlingly well-choreographed, impossibly nimble for all its heavy metal-and-bone construction.
After a brief prologue, “Fury Road” opens with one of the craziest car chases in cinema history. It’s also the least crazy car chase in the movie, which keeps topping itself over and over right until the closing credits. Along the way, the new Max also contains maybe the single best hand-to-hand fight in any major blockbuster since “The Matrix,” and scene after scene of jaw-dropping production and costume design. (If this movie isn’t in contention in both of those categories come Oscar time, something is truly and shamefully broken with the awards system.)
The only unbelievable part is that no one was seriously hurt or killed during the making of this picture. I cannot overstate the quality of the mayhem we see onscreen, both in terms of the vehicular carnage and how much each crash and near miss matters in terms of the story being told. There are real artistry and poetry to the onscreen chaos. This is a spectacular action picture that slowly morphs into an out-and-out great film.