I take great pleasure in the notion that George Miller finds takes the opportunities of caution presented to him by the entertainment industry and transforms them into wildly audacious cinematic creations. He did it nearly two decades ago when he parlayed his screenwriting and producing credits on the gentle hit Babe into more creative control, including the directing role, on its more ambitious, decidedly darker, and markedly beautiful sequel (which, of course, didn’t fare nearly as well at the box office). Now, with the studios’ seemingly unstoppable hunger for any project that carries even a hint of brand recognition and the possibility of enduring franchise, Miller agreed to revisit his most famous creation, almost precisely thirty years after Max Rockatansky sauntered in and out of the Thunderdome, seemingly closing his tenure as a screen character. Gifted with a budget that dwarfed that of the previous three films combined, Miller delivered a pure astonishment. Mad Max: Fury Road is a feast of delirious excess, the dystopian future of the earlier installments expanded and enriched. There are still cars roaring down dusty roadways, but the action is grander and more thrilling, in no small part because the design work (strongly informed by the efforts of comic book artist Brendan McCarthy) that dapples every square inch of the film is so exuberantly wondrous and inventive.
For all its kinetic attributes, the film would risk becoming empty bombast without the spine of purposeful storytelling. There is fire and poignancy to the tale of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, in a performance shockingly undervalued as Fury Road collected a steady stream of year-end accolades) embarking on a self-appointed mission to free the enslaved wives of the grotesque Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played “Toecutter” in the original Mad Max). Miller delivers more pointed messages about female empowerment than any of the more staid, earnest films committed to the same theme across the past year. Tom Hardy plays the title role like a wounded dog, his acting scored with hesitancy, grace, and a painfully gradual acceptance of others. There is a committed internalization that is completely at odds with most action films protagonists, suggesting that the best way to command the screen is to refrain from shouting back against the high volume clamor. So many attempts to revive or prolong film series that are ages old are just this side of disastrous, making something like the cheerful adequacy of Star Wars: The Force Awakens look like a triumph. With Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller demonstrates that the current model of cinematic retreads need not be a creative dead end. In the hands of the right filmmaker, one with a fearless investment in headlong artistry, even something that begins as an echo can be transformed into a spectacular symphony.