Death Race 2015: "Mad Max" one hell of an operatic, bonkers ride

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
120 min., rated R.

It's been almost thirty years since Aussie director George Miller last helmed a "Mad Max" movie with 1985's "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome," the third Mel Gibson-starrer after 1979's "Mad Max" and 1981's "Mad Max: The Road Warrior." Let it sink in for a minute that Miller is the same man who last gave us "Babe: Pig in the City" and the animated "Happy Feet" films about dancing penguins. His fourth opus set in the post-apocalyptic desert wasteland, "Mad Max: Fury Road," isn't something we see every day, especially in a big, muscular summer picture from a big studio. It's breathtakingly bleak and grim yet anarchic, visceral, strange, eye-popping and exhilarating, a dystopian action-western knockout fueled by breathless adrenaline and spectacularly badass spectacle that leaves very few bones to pick. It's official: "Mad Max: Fury Road" is the real deal of the summer season. "Avengers: Age of Ultron," who?

Haunted by visions and voices of his murdered wife and child, cop-turned-lone-wolf Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) just wants to survive the desert wasteland. It's survival of the fittest and the most precious resources are water and gasoline. The Citadel is ruled by tyrannical warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who keeps the water mostly to himself. When Max is captured, he is nearly branded and then becomes the "blood bag" for the brainwashed Nux (Nicholas Hoult), one of many of Immortan Joe's minions called "war boys." Luckily, his hopes for survival are shared by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), one of Immortan Joe's rig-driving lieutenants who has gone rogue and is being targeted for treason. On the run and still out for retribution, Furiosa has rescued and stowed away The Five Brides, among them Toast (Zoë Kravitz), Capable (Riley Keough), The Dag (Abbey Lee), Cheedo (Courtney Eaton) and Splendid (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), Immortan Joe's most prized property for being pregnant with his child. En route to the only ideal location known as "The Green Place," not all hope is lost for Max, Furiosa and the young women.

A revamped, amped-up-for-2015 but stand-alone reboot of the 1979 ozploitation original, "Mad Max: Fury Road" returns to the desert with a vengeance and breathes vitality into the franchise and the way we look at action-genre filmmaking. Favoring practical effects and stunt work over anything fake or added in post, George Miller never allows his discovery of new-fangled technology, like CGI used to bring a sandstorm to life, to suck the excitement, danger or the lack of a safety net out of his extravaganza. Buzzing fast and furiously, the pacing rarely drags its feet, but pulls over just enough times to not exhaust from the relentless onslaught of nihilistic chaos. Simple and lean without much exposition to be shoved down our throats, the story is virtually one long chase. Miller and co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris cut to the chase, literally, dropping viewers right in without instructions, albeit one that exists as more than a mere clothesline on which to hang action set-pieces. There are characters and narrative stakes here, guiding us from point A to point B and then, without giving away any story beats, back to point A. 

Shaping up to be one of our most intensely committed character actors working today, Tom Hardy has such a formidable presence even as his Max is a man of more grunts than words (he doesn't even give his name until the very end). Though the loss of Max's family is the sort of backstory that just has to be accepted, it is disappointing that flashbacks and hallucinations are the only attempts for context. That's no problem, though, as it could be argued that this is Charlize Theron's movie as much as it is Hardy's. With a shaved head, the grease she applies as a smoky eye up to her forehead and a mechanical arm, Theron's rebellious Imperator Furiosa might even be tougher and more resilient than any of her male counterparts, forming herself a spot next to Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley and Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor. Her robust physicality makes her game for an intense match of fisticuffs against Max before they become allies and then she gives the enemy his gnarly just desserts. In the part, which might only give the actress a little more to say than Hardy, Theron is riveting, lending a much-needed soul and moving sadness once the underlying motivation of Furiosa comes to the forefront.

Supporting parts are much more than window dressing. Virtually unrecognizable as zombie-looking war boy Nux, Nicholas Hoult makes a lasting impression, bringing layers to a desperately devoted young man who has been molded into a kamikaze warrior by the Citadel's ruler and heads toward self-realization once his promise for being reborn after self-sacrifice will never happen. Hugh Keays-Byrne, who also played "Toecutter" in the first "Mad Max," is chillingly scary, based solely on his darkened eyes and long white hair and Bane-like intonations, while the rest of his face is hidden behind a skull-faced respirator and his body encased in a plastic shell to cover his boils. Of the sexy but pure concubines Furiosa hides in her rig, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoë Kravitz, and Abbey Lee stand out the most, outwitting their male captors when needed. While little development is allotted to any of them, these women refuse to be victims anymore, taking bolt cutters to their chastity belts, and when any one of them is put in danger, we actually care. And, for those who base the quality of every movie on passing the Bechdel Test, "Mad Max: Fury Road" is equal-opportunity for testosterone and estrogen.

Blending the psychedelic, heavy-metal and steampunk sensibilities with the dusty and action-packed, "Mad Max: Fury Road" is like a bonkers, operatic rush delivered by a madman. Each set-piece is awesomely staged with a giddily gonzo, demented abandon, as if Miller has been sitting on every money shot for a whole 30 yearswell, here they are being unleashed. Imaginatively designed with touches out of a campy, anything-goes freakshow, from the "milking room" full of overweight women pumping out milk, to the drumming war boys and a marionette-like guitarist with a flame-throwing electric bass as the mast of one of Immortan Joe's convoys, to war boys atop arcing poles on top of their vehicles, the film never stops being a glorious (and highly amusing) feast for the eyes and keeps topping and reinventing itself. From top to bottom, the technical artistry is superlative. Cinematographer John Seale brings a vivid, sun-burnt palette to every tactile and arresting frame, then casts the night scenes in blues that could be mistaken for black and white, while coherently handling all of the vehicular mayhem with kinetic, in-your-face bravura. Adding a dose of urgency, the pounding score conceived by Junkie XL (Tom Holkenborg) has all of the orchestrations of an electric rock opera. Here on out, every action movie on its way this summer better watch its back or step it up a notch because "Mad Max: Fury Road" is the one veritably wild hell of a thrill ride to beat. There won't be a dry mouth in the theater.

Grade: A -