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Miracles happen

George Miller drops the mic with ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

Nicholas Hoult, Riley Keough and Charlize Theron in ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

In 1979, director George Miller made rough-and-tumble, Aussie exploitation film “Mad Max,” starring then-unknown Mel Gibson. Max Rockatansky, a good guy cop in a dystopian near-future, runs afoul of a local biker gang. In retaliation, they kill Max’s wife and daughter—earning some explosive payback. It’s a scrappy, low-budget affair, and fun as hell—something of a “Death Wish” remake but with insane stunts (read: people got hurt). Miller’s debut exhibited many of the aesthetic qualities that came to define his dark, slightly deranged, weirdly humorous style.

That film spawned 1981 hit “The Road Warrior,” which set the post-apocalyptic stage that largely defines the series, and which vaulted Mel Gibson to international stardom. 1985’s “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” cemented the character as a cinematic icon. If there were a Hall of Fame for Movie Badasses, Mad Max would have been inducted long ago.

Miller’s been kicking around a sequel for over a decade. Thirty years after “Thunderdome,” it’s finally arrived (sans Gibson) with “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

Max (Tom Hardy) is wandering the proverbial Wasteland when he comes under pursuit by The War Boys, stormtroopers of King Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who starred as the head villain, Toecutter, in the original “Mad Max”). King Joe is a terrifying warlord who controls a community of muddied serfs by occasionally tapping his massive water reserves. Just enough to keep them alive. But hey, that’s civilization in 2060.

Meanwhile, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), King Joe’s general of sorts, goes off-mission with his Five Wives in an attempt to liberate them. Their fertility has enslaved the women to King Joe’s diabolical plan: repopulating the world with a dynasty created in his ruined image. Max escapes, falling in with the AWOL harem and a crazed War Boy named Nux (delightfully played by Nicholas Hoult).

Obviously, King Joe takes umbrage with losing his ladies. Queue an army of bloodthirsty maniacs driving mechanically-mutated, super-horsepowered vehicles, hell-bent on getting The Five Wives back and killing the shit out of Furiosa and Max.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” is a tour de force of action filmmaking that might—however improbably—be the best of the whole series. At 70, Miller has entered that rarefied space of a filmmaker doing his best work on the downslope of a long career. It’s hard to overstate how that almost never happens. Scorsese is the only other that immediately comes to mind, with 2013’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.” But “Fury Road” is a masterpiece. 

Here, Miller (along with co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris) crafts a film with the piss-and-vinegar immediacy of a director half his age, combined with the narrative elegance and visual grandeur of an old hand. There is zero fat on this thing, which is written as essentially one long scene. I haven’t experienced such storytelling economy and cinematic self-assurance since “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

Miller’s main female characters have always tended toward strength, independence and pragmatism, be it Virginia Hey’s Warrior Woman in “The Road Warrior” or Tina Turner’s memorable Auntie Entity in “Thunderdome.” But the real power is usually in the wrong hands. Men like King Joe were responsible for the Apocalypse, and now he’s trying to resurrect the worst of civilization. Though it’s true that the series is machismo-centric (and definitely aimed at dudes), “Fury Road” feels like it belongs to Furiosa as much as Max, if not more so. I guess “Furiosa Road” sounded weird. 

Hilariously, this shift has sent men’s rights activists into apoplectic shudders of rage. They’ve branded the film feminist propaganda, especially given that the author of The Vagina Monologues consulted on creating the female characters. Regardless, the film’s embrace of its feminist themes adds an organic allegorical depth to the lean narrative. Yet, like the rest of the series, the film feels like a distinct part of a unified world. After all, any great dystopian/sci-fi visions of our future inform the present—it’s hard not to think of our ongoing patriarchal war against women’s sexual autonomy.

I was a little worried the slickness of “Fury Road” would somehow take me out. There’s a shaggy charm to the first two films that grounds them in their place and time. They looked great, and with “Thunderdome,” Miller’s visual chops had noticeably matured. But not to this degree. With “Fury Road,” he’s created an action art film of mind-boggling visual dexterity. The complex design sometimes recalls the gorgeous, Rube Goldbergian joys of Jean Pierre Juenet (“Amelie”) as applied to a chase movie. Be it the demented costumes and makeup, the thrilling effects work, the peerless editing or John Seale’s gorgeous cinematography (see this in 2D, I beg you) there’s really nothing about “Fury Road” that isn’t firing on all cylinders. You wouldn’t believe how much of the copious destruction and stunts are practical, in keeping with Miller’s penchant for bat-shit tangible mayhem.

The beauty of the chase through a desert sandstorm of fire tornados; the grace of the fearless War Boys riding 20-foot sapling-like metronomes, attempting to pluck out the Five Wives in a balls-to-the-wall, high-speed demolition derby served up with with Molotov cocktails—these are among a raft of jaw-dropping sequences that make me want to run back to the theater right fucking now.  

Of course, all of that would only be window dressing without compelling performances, and this cast delivers. Playing Max’s sense for self-preservation against his just moral center with subtle ease, Hardy is true to his anti-hero roots. He’s been like this for three films now, just looking out for himself until injustice rears its head. Hardy plays Max as slightly more beaten, but with all of the cagey charisma and genuine heart that Gibson brought to the role.

Charlize Theron enters the pantheon of captivating female action heroes alongside Sigourney Weaver (and Milla Jovovich—though Weaver and Theron are better actors). Her Furiosa is imbued with a closeted humanity that Theron deftly weaves into her character’s hardened exterior. It’s Furiosa’s origin story as much as it is a continuation of Max’s, and Theron owns the screen and story alongside Hardy.

Nicholas Hoult as Nux is something of a revelation here, not that he sucks in general. He made “Warm Bodies” work for me, and here he grounds the film with a crazed exuberance that is something of a staple in Miller’s films. 

It’s really a wonder they weren’t all overwhelmed by the movie itself. “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a gauntlet thrown down to modern action films and an example that stands in stark contrast to other directors returning to their famous franchises after decades. This is no “Phantom Menace,” “Crystal Skull” or “Prometheus.” If it were the first of its kind, it would spark years of imitators. That it’s Miller’s fourth entry is a legitimate miracle.

For more on film from Joe O'Shansky, check out his summer movie preview.