GWAR would approve. The evolution of George Miller's windswept steampunk vision of the future reaches a glorious crescendo in the fourth Mad Max installment: Mad Max: Fury Road. I cannot overstate the imagination of this film. Not since Pan's Labyrinth has a movie so successfully created a dangerous original world. But there has never been a movie quite like Fury Road. In a world of fire and blood, Miller has forged an instant classic.
Years after Max Rockatansky disappeared into the desert at the end of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, we find him again at the start of Fury Road. Mel Gibson has been replaced by Tom Hardy, and the character shows the wear of the hard years. Long-haired and clad in the ancient rags of a lost civilization, Max is easily captured by a group of Wild Boys, the whitewashed followers of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) who rules hordes with the promise of Aqua-Cola (water) in this life and glory in the next. He's a post-apocalyptic Colonel Kurtz with a Cheshire grin straight out of American Horror Story.
Speaking of masks, Hardy's face is covered once again (as it was in The Dark Knight Rises), near the beginning of Fury Road. Once captured, he's taken inside The Citadel, the huge mountain fortress of Immortan Joe and his legions. He's muzzled, tattooed with "universal donor" and hung upside down, a living blood bank for injured Wild Boys. How Max escapes this fate won't be ruined here, but it involves being made into a beautifully medieval hood ornament.
These opening scenes of Fury Road are relentless action movie making. Miller's camera swoops, dives, and speeds up to capture the raucous anarchy within the mountain. The details are endless and worthy of dozens of viewings. The "Milking Room" stands out, as does Immortan Joe's preparation ritual among the many quick scenes that together paint a mosaic of this primal existence.
Meanwhile, on the ground, one of Joe's loyal "Imperators," his most loyal and trusted followers, has her own plans. Furiosa (Charlize Theron), at the wheel of a War Rig, has vowed to return to "The Green Place" of her youth along with some very precious cargo. Once it becomes known she's gone rogue, Immortan Joe takes matters into his own hands, leading a fleet of cars, tanks, trucks, and dirt bikes into the barren desert landscape. It's a positively nightmarish vision: a Nitro Circus from the Gates of Hell.
And the movie hasn't even started yet. What ensues is essentially a chase film, but it's much more also. The stunts defy traditional movie making (little CGI was used) and the reality of each crash, each spear thrown at someone's head, hits home hard. There are sequences in this film that don't even contain acting. They can't. The action is so huge and so unpredictable, the players move on instinct. Wild Boys swing from vehicle to vehicle like demon pole vaulters, recklessly sacrificing themselves for Immortan Joe. The overwhelming feeling is this villain simply can't be beaten and the violence won't stop until everyone is dead.
Hardy's Max and Theron's Furiosa are the heroes of the film and both inhabit their characters completely. Hardy is typically excellent, bringing the same physicality that's marked his career and giving him another legendary figure, like Bane, to build his resume. But Theron's performance is the most impressive. With her left arm removed at the elbow via CGI, she essentially works one-handed while driving tractor trailers, firing sniper rifles, and taking enormous beatings at every turn. She's ferocious without ever losing sight of Furiosa's inner monologue. She has a purpose, and every move she makes comes back to that.
The actors all stand out in the film, including Nicholas Hoult as the one Wild Boy we get to know, Nux. And Keays-Byrne, rescued from the purgatory of TV miniseries work, brings terrifying evil using just his eyes as Immortan Joe. I wish I could thank them all. The physical toll must have been unbearable. The actors can thank Miller, the genius behind the lens whose brain somehow conjured this Hieronymus Bosch painting of a film. I could draw a straight line from The Wild One in 1953, which introduced a crazy gang of bikers following a charismatic leader (played by Marlon Brando), to Mad Max: Fury Road in 2015. But I don't know that film was big for Miller growing up in Australia. His imagination transcends the usual cinematic reference points.
The 70-year-old co-writer/director has succeeded in a very large way after a long time making the Babe and Happy Feet movies and little else. His return to action filmmaking is so natural, it's a wonder why he ever left. There are ambitious filmmakers whose visions are made whole onscreen—the Peter Jacksons, Terry Gilliams, and Guillermo Del Toros of the industry—but those guys have little on Miller. The inventiveness of Mad Max: Fury Road will send shockwaves down the corridors of power in Hollywood. I still can't believe what I just saw.