There are moments in Mad Max: Fury Road where I sat gaping at the screen in exhilaration and awe, convinced this film is the car chase masterpiece to which all of cinema has built. That's heat-of-the-moment hyperbole, but it sure is indicative of how enveloping and sustained this exhilarating action film is. I thought back to the jaw-dropping truck chase climax in writer-director George Miller’s first Mad Max sequel, 1982’s The Road Warrior, and how blown away I was as a hurtling pyrotechnic stunt display neared its twentieth minute. Fury Road pushes past its fortieth minute, then its ninetieth, racing towards two hours with no signs of taking its foot off the pedal. People careen between tanker trucks, zoom souped-up jalopies and armored muscle cars protruding jagged metal and long, pendulous spears as guns fire, knives jab, bombs explode into the desert, and vehicles crash and flip. Every rest is simply a suspenseful pause before the chased spy their pursuers roaring over the horizon.
Miller returns to the sand-swept post-apocalyptic outback he left behind in 1985’s Beyond Thunderdome, summoning up every ounce of his prodigious imagination, filmmaking prowess, attention to fantastical detail, and moral heft to create the most soulful and exciting action film in ages. The Mad Max films’ worldbuilding works wonders by staying small and specific, with stakes tactile and personal. We follow the taciturn rover Max into unique and fascinating corners of the ruined world each time out. Here we discover yet another place where water and gas are currency, and where human life has been organized in convincingly cruel and cracked ways. Max (Tom Hardy, flawlessly taking over for Mel Gibson), suffering PTSD from his earlier exploits, finds himself captured by War Boys and held prisoner in their automotive death cult in a cavernous oasis they call The Citadel.
A persuasive and disturbing dystopian society fully thought-through, The Citadel is ruled by an evil warlord, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who breathes with a tooth-studded oxygen mask and has his putrid body sealed in plastic armor. He controls the water, and therefore his subjects, men covered in tumors and scars willing to die for a drink and promise of an automotive Valhalla afterlife. The women are treated as property, good for breeding with the Immortan and providing milk. These enslaved young women (Zoë Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, and Courtney Eaton) sneak off with a rare free female, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), in her tanker. The women flee across the desert, Joe’s vehicular army close behind. One driver (Nicholas Hoult) straps Max to the front of his car, muzzled and dripping blood as he’s reluctantly pulled into this conflict.
Miller, writing with Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris, has concocted a story perfect for a feature-length chase, lean and expressive. It’s a tour de force of perpetual motion, briskly characterizing its participants through actions while organizing witty, complicated fast-paced visual spectacle. Always on the move, but never exhausting, the film varies its speed in natural, and suspenseful, ways. Filming real cars barreling across a real desert, Miller finds terrific weight in every movement, a sense that violence matters. This makes the most visceral of crashes and smashes, and every moment with people crawling around and between vehicles, feel impactful and dangerous. Cinematographer John Seale’s wonderfully textured images capture the brilliant stunt work (comparison to Buster Keaton’s The General seems apt), sweeping across vast spaces and squeezing into tight corners. Editor Jason Ballantine elegantly whips up suspense and finds poetry in motion amidst the growling engines, grisly gore, saturated colors, and CGI enhancements. As new combatants join the chase, the momentum keeps things hurtling along with nerve-wracking, teeth-rattling, white-knuckle thrills.
The visual and moral clarity of Fury Road is impressive. We know at every moment what dangers confront our characters, drawn in broad strokes and colored in with Miller’s creative specificity. Wild leather outfits, bright streaks of makeup and motor oil, and steam-punk prosthetics are the ensemble’s costumes. Within them are fiercely primal performances. Theron’s the best, tearing through the scenery as an avenging warrior, bold, bald, smart, wielding a burning glare and artificial limb with deadly serious intent. The villains are grotesque men, sickly dripping disease and rot in impressively gross makeup effects. Their fleeing victims are angelic innocents wrapped in flowing white cloths (though never mere damsels in distress). And then there’s Max, in his cool jacket and affect, perhaps the last noble man left on Earth. He’s principled and troubled, is reluctant to fight, always wanting to save his own skin, and yet unable to ignore the danger faced by those around him. The moral stakes of all this turmoil is agonizingly clear.
It’s this strong, simple core that makes the action of Mad Max: Fury Road so particularly intense. Not only does Miller stage spectacular crashes and explosions, communicating an invigorating sense of pain and drive, but he quickly makes it matter. I was drawn into the fascinating world he created, cared deeply about the characters in peril and what becomes tenderly moving about their relationships. The movie charges forward, asking an audience to lean in and catch up. How exciting to enter a fully drawn world with an immediately gripping scenario of emotional and thematic weight, and find absorbing chaos. This is popcorn filmmaking at the highest level, a master filmmaker proving relentless noise and fury can be artfully shaped, and carry a genuine, meaningful wallop. Miller considers his characters' choices as carefully as he choreographs their cars, in both cases as exhilarating for what they do as how they arrive there.