George Miller has spent nearly 15 years trying to get a new Mad Max movie off the ground, which may explain why he wastes no time feeding patient fans of his franchise right into a buzzsaw. He knows that a decade and a half is enough foreplay—it’s time to cut right to the climax. And for 120 minutes, that climax doesn’t let up. Mad Max: Fury Road may be the first Tantric action flick. Sting will love it. Souped-up motorcycles soar over Nitro-fueled muscle cars, Nitro-fueled muscle cars crash into tricked-out oil trucks, and all of them explode into glorious fireballs. Fury Road not only captures the same Molotov-cocktail craziness of Miller’s masterpiece, 1981’s The Road Warrior—it’s also a surprisingly hypercaffeinated film for a director in his fifth decade behind the camera.
The original Mad Max first hit theaters in 1979, when the world was squeezed in the viselike grip of a global oil crisis. The parched Australian outback of the film and its scavenger-punk inhabitants’ quest for precious fuel may have seemed cartoonish at the time, but not totally implausible. In this thirsty, lawless wasteland, a hero emerged—a cop named Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) whose family was murdered by a mohawked gang and for whom payback and survival were two sides of the same furnace-blasted coin. The reason I bring up this backstory is because you won’t learn any of it from Fury Road. Miller either expects his audience to be fluent in the Maxverse, or he simply doesn’t care. Either way, if it’s more than just a demolition-derby high you’re chasing, it helps to know a bit about the character or you might walk out a little hungry. That is, after your retinas cool down and the adrenaline rush wears off.
As everyone knows by now, Max is no longer played by Gibson, but instead by Tom Hardy. And while the red-hot British actor’s unapologetic brand of macho danger in films like Warrior, Locke, and as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises would seem ideal for such a ferocious gig, the truth is he pales next to Gibson, who managed to convey not just physical pain, but the emotional kind, too. At the beginning of the film, Hardy’s Max is the hog-tied prisoner of an evil warlord with a platinum fright wig and a Skeletor muzzle named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, “Toecutter” from the 1979 original). This kabuki-painted tyrant lords over a dystopian city of enslaved women that looks like a Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life. After escaping, Max teams up with Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa—a buzzcut badass with a mechanical arm (who, it should be noted, is the movie’s real hero)—and hightails it across the desert pursued by Immortan Joe’s psycho death-race marauders. Cue the drums of war, the fire-and-brimstone pyrotechnics, and the death-defying practical stunts.
When you get past Miller’s orgy of loco action sequences—and they’re so good, you may not need to—the story is pretty thin. Max, Furiosa, and their band of gypsies, tramps, and thieves (including a gonzo Nicholas Hoult) basically race from Point A to Point B, realize Point B isn’t what they hoped, and race back to Point A. What made the first Mad Max such a future-shock classic wasn’t just its jittery, overcranked action served up with a sick smile, but also its metaphorical depth. The new film is, I’m sorry to say, just another summer action film (albeit a gorgeously shot one). In the end, Mad Max’s road may be furious, but it doesn’t really lead anywhere. B