'Mad Max: Fury Road' Is Spectacular Action Filmmaking

Mad Max: Fury Road is fearless behind the wheel, a vivid collection of action setpieces unified by a dream of upending the very concept of the action hero. In 1981, director and co-writer George Miller used concepts from Jung and Joseph Campbell to supercharge the image of the screen hero for The Road Warrior, a return to the Mad Max character he created with Mel Gibson, but Fury Road's version of heroism is even more forward-thinking.Fury Road implicitly acknowledges that Miller's old heroic conception may have been incomplete. It pairs Tom Hardy as Max with a woman named Furiosa, played with controlled yet intuitive ferocity by Charlize Theron. He's the hero as raw energy; she is that energy channeled in a way that might be able to build a society.

With Theron and Hardy in the lead roles and Miller again in the driver's seat, Fury Road isn't just good enough to obliterate the lingering sting of the last film (Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, released in 1985), but so good that it rivals The Road Warrior and shames all of Hollywood's current action tendencies. This film develops its own specific ambition by placing dueling concepts about heroism into the framework of one of the best action movies I've ever seen.

Unmoored in time, the story could be a sequel to any of the previous Mad Max films. Tom Hardy's Max might be the same character played previously by Mel Gibson, or he might be someone else. It doesn't entirely matter. The change in leading man offers Miller the chance to use the Road Warrior's conception of Max as a jumping-off point, and to take him in a subtly but distinctly new direction.

The future, whenever it is, is bleak. Hope, as Max advises, "is a mistake," and that should be one clue of many that maybe this guy isn't really our hero. Hardy's Max keeps the pedal to the metal even when it comes to being "mad" — he is all but insane, a hollowed-out husk of a man reduced to little more than a bundle of survival instincts wrapped around memories of failure. Asked to give his name at one point Max wonders what the point would be, but this guy is so far gone in some ways that I wonder if he even remembers his humanity, much less his identity.

Furiosa, by contrast, has a dream and a plan, fueled by a cold-fusion core of rage. Max's name may be in the title, but Furiosa is the prime motivator. Theron reconfigures Max's determination and capable skills into a more persuasive hero — she's suffered through hard times and come out the other side with a purpose, and the willingness to sacrifice to see it through.

She has liberated a group of young women, conscripted as "wives" and hidden away by warlord Immortan Joe. Infuriated as much by the brazen rebellion of Furiosa's act as he is at the loss of his "property," Joe leads a pursuit convoy of War Boys, young men ready for glorious death in battle. (Liberated slogans are painted in the wives' imprisoning chambers like final invective: "our babies will not be warlords" and "we are not things.")

This is a rock opera, painted in vivid colors with great maelstroms of kinetic energy. Dialogue is sparse. Hardy maybe says a couple dozen lines. Some of it is obviously not even meant to be deciphered — it's dialogue as color for a scene, a successful version of the experiment Christopher Nolan performed with Interstellar. A few scenes that do rely heavily on dialogue teeter on the razor-thin line between "over the top" and simple parody.

Stripped down to base essentials, this is an film of binary groups: those with wheels and those without; the saved and the unsaved; male tendencies and female. But it is curious enough to explore the grey areas between. The black and white-painted War Boy played in a career-best turn by Nicholas Hoult dives surprisingly deep into the idea of finding salvation through violent death. Or, to point at a small detail, there's the pairing of plant seeds and "anti-seeds," a term one character uses for bullets. Plant seeds are an explicitly feminine concept here, but Immortan Joe's stronghold is the only place of green for hundreds of miles, and the best shooters, sowers of "anti-seeds," are all women.

So it is disappointing that the five Wives are less fully realized. Played by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Zoë Kravitz, Abbey Lee Kershaw, and Courtney Eaton, they are character types (the fighter, the weird one, the caregiver, etc.) rather than full characters.

Warner Bros. has been quite savvy in linking The Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler to the film as a consultant on the Wives' backstory, but you'd be hard-pressed to guess based on the film. Rarely, if ever, do the Wives seem like characters who have spent a lifetime suffering sexual slavery; rather, they are at times sexualized in what seems to be an unsuccessful play at genre commentary. It's the only place Fury Road falters, but it's a significant one.

Elsewhere, Miller & co. are confident in bringing weird ideas to life. Immortan Joe, played by Mad Max veteran Hugh Keays-Byrne, is a brilliantly grotesque parody of an image-conscious leader, hidden behind a ferociously toothy mask and shrouded in plastic body armor that simultaneously protects him and makes him look like a vigorously youthful warrior. His political power is almost religious; young War Boys are ready and eager to die at his command, smiling as they do at the thought of riding acts of violent glory to Valhalla.

Subtle? Not for a moment. Effective? Very. The world in Fury Road is convincing and whole, and every grotesque bit feels like it belongs.

And the stunt work. Oh, the stunts. Whatever it is — the athleticism of today's stunt performers, the ability to plan setpieces with computer modeling, or the need to be bigger and better — the stunt performances in Fury Road are nothing short of astonishing. Any given visual idea could be the best part of another movie; here that idea is followed by a dozen more. The extensive rolling setpieces are wild series of ideas that smash cars together, destroy vehicles with abandon, and launch motorcycles and pole-mounted warriors airborne in exquisite displays of physical ingenuity.

(Calls for the addition of an Academy Award recognizing stunt work get louder every year, and this team, including Keir Beck, Dayna Grant, Guy Norris, Richard Norton, and Greg van Borssum, deserves to be recognized in the same way other principle creators have been. This movie is nothing without them.)

As good as the stunts are, Miller's direction is mind-boggling in its exactitude. Most action films are split between primary and secondary unit work. Fury Road did feature multiple units working in tandem, but here there's no difference between action and story scenes. It's all one whirlwind, with Miller at the center.

One word captures Miller's action staging: clarity. Fury Road has some of the clearest action direction I've seen in any film. There's never a point in where I was at a loss for where characters were, what they were moving toward, and how the many intersecting paths lead to important collisions. Major and minor characters are tracked through the constantly-moving chaos, and Miller, cinematographer John Seale, and editor Margaret Sixel juggle them all without dropping a single one.

At times I dream of Fury Road shot on film; my more rational mind knows there's no way this movie would exist shot on film. Shooting digital, cameras could run endlessly allowing the convoy of vehicles to keep rolling through take after take. In so doing, Miller and his crew apparently captured every moment they needed to build action scenes that burst with chaotic frenzy, in which every character movement is clearly tracked.

Films are built painstakingly in fractions, one moment at a time, but Fury Road is like a thing born in an explosion, roaring to life fully formed as the end product of some cinematic Big Bang. It feels more new than we have a right to expect from any sequel, and even with missteps in mind is bracingly progressive, and a triumphant return for George Miller.

/Film rating: 9 out of 10