Mad Max: Fury Road seems to have been created entirely to illustrate how paltry the action has been in this year's earliest blockbusters. A far cry from the undistinguished destruction of Avengers: Age of Ultron and the half-realized cartoonishness of Furious 7, director George Miller's vision is one of balletic brutishness, of beautifully choreographed pandemonium. Where those earlier films were indifferently shot and murky, this is a film of rich red deserts and grey-blue night skies. The director may have not made a live-action film since 1998's memorably deranged Babe: Pig in the City, but Fury Road easily matches the sublime mixture of silliness and savagery of Miller's earlier Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior while cranking the kineticism and inventiveness into overdrive.
Filling in for Mel Gibson (who'd probably be more at home playing the villain at this point), Tom Hardy stars as Max Rockatansky, former cop turned ronin in a post-apocalyptic wasteland ruled by a cult, the War Boys, and their dictatorial leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, playing a different villain than he did in the original Mad Max).
For much of the first third, Max is incapacitated, captured and used as a human bloodbag for ailing War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult). The focus is instead put on Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a soldier who hijacks a War Rig meant to collect gasoline to smuggle Joe's slave wives out of his desert kingdom and into a promised "green place."
A few niceties aside, that's more or less the long and short of the film's purposefully spare plot, a near-constant chase between the War Boys and the women with Max involuntarily along for the ride. And what an exhilarating chase it is: the film's first third alone sees Furiosa caught in between Joe's horde and a rival group of marauders, dodging the bullets and explosives of both and racing through a sand storm to escape both (Max, for his part, is strapped to the front of Nux's vehicle, feeding blood to him while trying like hell to find any way to get out).
Mad Max: Fury Road is a masterpiece of design, of editing, and of direction. Miller has reportedly been working on the film for years (it was originally meant to shoot with Gibson in 2001), and has used the extra time to stock up on ten films' worth of visual ideas. The War Boys are a constantly thrashing group of angry, aggressive beasts. Their spray-painted bodies (white torsos and mouths, black above the nose) recall the tribalistic nature of heavy metal concerts (if the connection weren't clear enough, one of the vehicles in the horde features a guitarist whose axe doubles as a flamethrower). Immortan Joe's shock white hair, ghoulish mouthpiece and heavy armor are outdone by the boils and welts on his body. It's the most vividly-realized group of heavies in recent movie history.
Their ferocity is matched by the film's. Fury Road reportedly features over 2,700 edits, but they're all service of making the film's stunts and explosions (there are more than a few) clearer and giving them a greater impact. Even when Miller cuts from, say, Max hanging off the edge of a truck to a parallel scene of Furiosa and the women fending off men with chainsaws above them, he carefully builds upon each moment, making sure that we never get lost in the carnage and that the scene never loses its propulsion. The pure inventiveness of the stunts (men using vertical poles to reach from one vehicle to another) and the edits (a screaming War Boy in a crash is used as a screen wipe) recalls both Buster Keaton and legendary animator Chuck Jones, making Fury Road the most imaginative action movies in years as well as the most hard-hitting.
If the film is fueled by Miller's ingenuity, it's driven by his leads: Hardy's flintier, more guttural take on Max is a welcome reinterpretation of the character, while Hoult's initial hyperactivity gives way to an unexpectedly sensitive hero. But Theron steals the show as Furiosa. In a film that emphasizes action and actions over dialogue, Theron creates her character almost wholly on how she carries herself as someone who's had to fight to survive, who's had to become part of the barbaric tribe in order to get the chance to rebel. Notably, Theron's head is shaved, her upper-face caked with the same black grease-paint many of the War Boys wear. It's in part her disguise, her way of becoming a part of the tribe, but it's also a sign of how one has to cut off an essential part of their humanity in order to survive in a cruel world.
Mad Max: Fury Road's early reviews have pegged it as a feminist masterpiece, which is overstating things a bit: it's working in broad strokes, and while its female heroes (both the wives and the awesomely-named Vulvalini tribe that assists the group) are welcome, few of them outside of Furiosa are given much personality. But it's still thrilling to see a film that shows its heroines first escaping, then outright destroying the patriarchal society that has, as the film suggests, "killed the world," and a central villain whose worldview is so diseased that it becomes manifest on his body. Even our ostensible protagonist seems to know it's not his show, frequently ceding leadership to the capable women around him. Furiosa's resilience in spite of a hellish past and a difficult road ahead is the film's soul amidst all the mayhem, a sign that if there's hope to be had for humanity's future, it's not likely with the ones responsible for its near-destruction.