George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road is a speed-metal classic. Crazed warlords and rampaging psychonauts attack nonstop. Fleets of monster trucks, cranked-up hot rods and armored battle bikes scream through the desert and sail through the air. Bullets rain down, chain saws snarl, flame-throwers belch and spew—and that's just the basics. Miller has spent the 30 years since his original Mad Max trilogy came to an end making great pictures about dancing penguins, talking pigs, and whatnot. Now, at age 70, he's back in action, and he's still the most gifted director in the crash-and-burn game. The movie's relentless frenzy is astonishing.
You'll recall from the earlier films that Max Rockatansky, Miller's battered road warrior, is a onetime cop who lost his wife and child in the savage tumult of a postapocalyptic civilizational breakdown. The role of Max made Mel Gibson a worldwide star; now, played by Tom Hardy, he's still a wanderer, still "searching for a righteous cause." After a typically insane spasm of opening action, he's captured by the hot-rodding minions of Immortan Joe, a wasteland tyrant who rules from a skull-shaped mountaintop fortress. (He's played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, who also played Toecutter in Miller's 1979 Mad Max.) Joe subjugates the local populace through his control of water, munitions, and the fuel to power his scrap-heap automotive legion. Dragged back to this dismal kingdom, Max is spotted by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), one of Joe's trusted lieutenants. Furiosa is on her way elsewhere, though. She's embarked on an act of treachery that sets the plot in motion.
It's a slowly dawning surprise to realize that a movie so ferociously devoted to action also has something else on its mind. Furiosa is actually the film's central character. Kidnapped as a child from some vague paradise called "the green place," she was raised in Joe's harsh realm, where young women are valued only as sex slaves and "breeders," relied upon to produce a new generation free of the diseases that infest the rest of this miserable world. The hideous Joe, with his wild white hair, demonic eyes, and horse-toothed jaw mask, keeps five of these fertile women as his personal property, and Furiosa has secretly stowed them away in her 18-wheel war truck for a gas run that is actually an escape back to the green place.
The picture's focus on women never devolves into standard feminist talking points (although Miller did bring in Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler to instruct the cast on the realities of international rape cultures). Joe's five brides—among them Zoë Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, and Riley Keough—stand in for traditional action-flick beauties, although they're too kickass to be pigeonholed as simple babes. And later we meet a tribe of elderly warrior women who tear across the sandy wastes on weaponized motorcycles, saying things like "I killed everyone I ever met out here." Isolated between these two poles is Furiosa, with her steampunk prosthetic arm and oil-greased cranium. Theron, in a commanding performance, plays this character as a prototypical loner of the Clint Eastwood school—an individual with her own deadly serious agenda. There's no romantic spark between her and Max: after a slam-bang fight scene that ends in a draw, they settle into a relationship of mutual respect. A useful thing, given the murderous forces arrayed against them.
It's nice to have a thoughtful plot in a movie like this, but really, the plot is hardly the point. The picture is a triumph of production design and action choreography. There are some amazing handmade battle wagons, one of them bristling with spikes, like a turbo-charged porcupine, another fronted by a wall of speakers and a shredding guitarist (whose double-necked instrument also shoots out flames). Miller's commitment to real stuntwork and state-of-the-art camera technology produces scenes of enveloping clamor and chaos, growing more dazzlingly complex as the film's two hours fly by. And while he relies very little on CGI, there's one computer-generated tornado—a towering wall of dust into which Max and Furiosa disappear—that has an awesome beauty. (The real-life desert lands we see elsewhere were filmed on locations in Australia and Namibia.)
Hardy is an appealingly low-key Max, constrained by a Bane-like mask in the beginning and otherwise prone to melancholy grunts. And Nicholas Hoult (X-Men: Days of Future Past) is a lot of fun as a lovable-lunatic "war boy" called Nux. But Charlize Theron rules this movie, her character a new kind of action hero who happens to be a woman. Over the course of the many years this film was in development, Miller is said to have contemplated a spinoff Furiosa feature. This is an idea that should maybe be moved back onto the front burner.