Review: “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a high watermark for blockbuster action films

If “Mad Max” is “A Fistful Of Dollars” and “The Road Warrior” is “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly,” then clearly “Fury Road” is George Miller's “Once Upon A Time In The West,” the moment when his movies move from the archetypical to the profound.

It seems impossible that George Miller has been away from live-action for 17 years. Then again, nothing about George Miller's career has ever really fit into any typical model. I always think of him as part of the Class of '82, the directors whose work really crystallized in what I maintain is the greatest geek movie line-up of all time. Most of those guys came out of the system, either through the Roger Corman training program or moving from TV to movies, trained at southern California film schools so they all had similar skill sets. Miller was different, though. He was never really one of them. He made his first film independently, and before they'd even release it in the US, they dubbed over the Australian accents. In America, “The Road Warrior” put Miller on the map in a way that “Mad Max” had not, and when he contributed a segment to “Twilight Zone: The Movie,” he was definitely the odd man out in terms of process, and his segment stood apart in terms of sheer visual overdrive.

Part of what made “The Road Warrior” so special was that it felt like it really had come from a completely alien culture. The film's Australian origins meant that no one in the film was familiar, and the sound of it was unlike anything made here. Our car culture movies were of the far more redneck variety, and no one here had ever made a film that felt like it moved at the same insane velocity as Miller's movie. These days, I hear people mention Gareth Evans, the director of “The Raid” and “The Raid 2,” as a potential candidate for this or that franchise movie, and every single time, I wince. Honestly, part of the reason his movies are what they are is because he makes them in Indonesia with a stunt team that works in a totally different way than anyone here in the US, for both legal and creative reasons. The same was true of “The Road Warrior.” Watching those stuntmen throw themselves off those cars and trucks and crashing those giant metal death chambers into each other, it felt like you were watching something forbidden and dangerous and insane.

“The Road Warrior” is pure myth. It's wonderful because it is so simple, so direct. It is the story told by a tribe of survivors about the man who helped them turn the tide. It is not Max's version of his story. In fact, when you look at the “Max” films as a whole, each one appears to have been told by someone different, and none of them seem to really work in terms of concrete continuity. I love the idea that these are stories told about the same person, but through different prisms because of who is telling the story. The power of “The Road Warrior” is that it is told breathlessly, one long dizzy encounter between Max and the hordes of the Lord Humungous. The final truck chase in that film is one of the single finest sequences of action choreography and photography of all time, genuinely educational in just how precise it was, while feeling absolutely out of control.

Subtext is not really a big part of the first three “Mad Max” movies, and that's fine. The third film is perhaps the one movie where Miller's whole heart is not evident in the final product, but it's for completely understandable reasons. Byron Kennedy, the Kennedy in Kennedy/Miller Productions, was killed in a helicopter accident during the pre-production period, and the result is just barely a George Miller film. If that had been his last trip to the Wasteland, it would have been perfectly understandable. At the end of it, Max is lost to the sands, and the kids he saved are the ones telling the story about how he's still out there wandering. He is a ghost by the end of that movie, a story told to make people believe there is hope even in this dead world. It felt like things were starting to come back to life at the end of “Thunderdome,” but it also felt like a natural place to stop with the character.

Miller has said that the idea that made him start to consider returning to this world was the notion of human cargo, and while that is certainly a part of the film he's made this time around, the reason “Fury Road” is great is because Miller has finally broadened his view of the wasteland enough to bring in characters who change our understanding of just how broken the world is after the so-called end of it. From the way he approached the “writing” of the film with illustrator Brendan McCarthy to the way he's cut the finished film, there is nothing easy or predictable about what George Miller delivers with “Mad Max: Fury Road,” a stone-cold action master class, beautiful and brainy and startling in the ways it throws off the current definition of the blockbuster. Miller has somehow convinced the biggest of the Hollywood studios to make a movie that is so personal, so individually voiced, that it feels like a window into the head of the filmmaker, and he did it on a scale that no one has ever attempted, much less accomplished.

If you have never seen a “Mad Max” film, that does not matter. And if you are an obsessive fan of any or all of the first three films, that also really doesn't matter. “Mad Max: Fury Road” tells a complete and self-contained story, and it explains anything anyone would ever need to know about Max as a character. When we are introduced to him in this movie, he is more broken than any other version of Max so far. As played by Tom Hardy, he is haunted by the faces and the voices and the sounds of the people he has failed, the dead bodies he has left in his wake either by action or by his inability to help them. He's about as animal as any version of Max has ever been, barely human. He is run down easily by a small war party made up of the War Boys, the followers of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), and he is taken to the remarkable mountain where Immortan Joe has built a remarkable ecosystem of followers of many stripes, all of them living in and around his Citadel.

His most trusted and respected followers are the Imperators, drivers of his mighty War machines, and among them, one of the most trusted and respected is Furiosa (Charlize Theron). Her War Rig is a massive death fortress on wheels, and when she drives it, she is joined by a small fleet of other war vehicles, her willing escorts. What is clear from the first moments of this film is that the followers of Immortan Joe are not mere thugs. They are devoted believers, religious fanatics who believe that they will be rewarded in the next world if they do the work of the Immortan in this one. And when they run Max down, it's not to convert him or to learn anything from him. He's just dumb cattle that got in their way, and once they figure out his blood type, they put him in a cage, a living IV bag for injured War Boys in need, on ice until there's a specific request for him. It honestly feels like the most hopeless and helpless moment in any of the films, and it's right at the start of this one. Max is not getting out of this. He can barely do anything and he's muzzled.

I don't want to spoil anything about the way the story starts to unfold, so we'll speak in broad terms. Max is obviously not going to spend the entire film being treated like something you throw in the trash after you drain it, and the fun of that first half comes from watching Max start to find the strength to continue, watching him start to wake up from his resigned paralysis. Tom Hardy's Max is a man of few words, but he's constantly thinking, constantly driven forward by either his one drive, survival, or by his one fear, his past. Where Miller pushes this film into new territory is with the supporting characters who emerge as the real focus of the story. Theron's work as Imperator Furiosa confirms just how canny a film actress she really is, because she manages to invest Furiosa with a huge emotional core that she calibrates carefully in every scene while also being well aware of the power of visual iconography. There's not a moment with Theron that wouldn't work as a still image. She is communicating about this character constantly throughout this film, her entire body a clenched fist ready to strike, constantly revealing new strengths or new turmoil. Imperator Furiosa dares to defy Immortan Joe, and that power is perhaps the most terrifying thing to his army of followers. They can't imagine anyone not willingly giving themselves over to Immortan Joe's wishes because they are so sure he is right. Putting a human face on this death-focused religious fundamentalism is Nux, played by Nicholas Hoult, who has a very clever connection to Max when he's introduced in the film. Nux is a true believer, and when he speaks, he is like a looped recording of Immortan Joe's promises and lies. As much as this is Max's story or Furiosa's story, it is also Nux's story, and I'm fairly sure this is the first giant-budget studio summer movie since 9/11 to present an empathetic portrait of what would make someone become a suicide bomber.

“Fury Road” is told in movements, long sweeping rolling set pieces that evolve over the course of a half hour or more of sustained action choreography. At the same time, Miller's telling this emotional story involving Max and Furiosa, with some very real and human work being done by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoe Kravitz, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, and Courtney Eaton, all of them introduced at the unlikeliest of moments. It would be easy for Miller to make the film in which these women were all just victims, with Max swooping in to save them, and if all you know are the first three films, I would imagine it's very easy to think this would be more of the same. Miller isn't interested in that, though, and he paints a picture that ultimately features three generations of women, fighting side by side for their own future. When you see the remarkably named Vulvalini swing into action, it's clear that Miller had no interest in simply repeating what he had already done. This is new ground, and while Max is certainly a major player here, he's not the solitary hero working on his own now. Instead, this film deals with the strength that comes from finding your community and having something to fight for in what could easily feel like a hopeless world.

But let's be honest… none of that matters if this is anything less than thrilling, and Miller has done something nearly supernatural here. The way Miller unfolds this film's story is just as deft as his always-perfect action choreography. Both George Miller and his cinematographer John Seale are in their 70s, and there is more energy in the action staging than I've seen in any studio movie in recent memory. These two “old men” attack these sequences like they're trying to carve some brand new action language out of what has become a very routine genre. Both Seale and Miller have this incredible depth of craft to draw on, and what they do here is downright revolutionary in the age of Jason Bourne's quaky overkill. There are moments where they are staging action on up to six or seven different planes at the same time, and it is almost surreal in how beautiful it is. While I feel like I absorbed the overall effect of the movie on my first viewing, I know that I've just started to unpack the action scenes. There are so many gags, so many stunts, so many different beats that play out that I felt drunk by the end of the film. This is that high that I chase each and every time I sit down in the theater, the thing that we seem to be telling Hollywood we want when we support these reboots and sequels and requels. This is a return to a world we've seen before, but on a scale the filmmaker never dared dream before. I genuinely have trouble believing it's real, even having seen it now. It feels like something I dreamed, something I made up.

One of the things that makes the film so powerful is the depth of the world that's been created, and when you see the movie and all the corners of it that Miller has filled out, it's easy to just get lost in how real it feels. Each new group of lunatics comes complete with an internal logic that is unimpeachable, and what I loved most is the way it feels like Miller came back to the Wasteland because it was still alive for him. I've joked since first seeing “The Road Warrior” about wanting to learn more about Lord Humungous and how he got from whoever he was at the end of the world to the hockey-mask-and-leather-bikini mutant we saw, and in “Fury Road,” it feels like Miller has widened his view to finally examine who these people are who are willing to die to protect Immortan Joe's property. How he managed to do that while also empowering the people who are fleeing precisely because they refuse to be treated as property is sort of a magic trick, and when you see how he manages to do all this world-building and character definition while constantly pushing things forward through extended elaborate action sequences, it is clear that no one anywhere is even attempting something on the same scale. Colin Gibson's production design, the art direction by Shira Hockman and Jacinta Leon, the set decoration by Katie Sharrock and Lisa Thompson, the costume design by Jenny Beavan… all of it is next-level, all of it in service of this remarkable reality. When you look at a character like Immortan Joe or The Doof Warrior or The Bullet Farmer or The Organic Mechanic or the army of War Boys or the War Pups or the Vulvalini or Rictus Erectus, you get a whole story in a glance, and rest assured that every person involved in the creation of that image is on the same page, focused on the same reality, dedicated to the vision of George Miller.

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 need of the world to constantly be at war is adult and direct and organically explored within the context of this beautifully simple action story. The world of this movie did not just convince me, it overwhelmed me. It was so much more movie 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.

Oh, and in the analogy I opened the review with? “Beyond Thunderdome” is totally “Duck, You Sucker.” For the record.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” opens in theaters everywhere Friday.