Mad Max

There’s a documentary on the making of the original “Mad Max” where the film’s stunt coordinator shows us the “state of the art” safety equipment his team was using: cardboard boxes. When we’d see stunt performers jumping off of moving vehicles, they’d land on stacks of cardboard boxes. These boxes weren’t even folded together but were stacked like floor mats. Nothing about it looked scientific or remotely safe. Clearly, the people making the movie were putting themselves in great danger.

The first “Mad Max,” a 1979 low budget but still exhilarating action movie from Down Under, led the way to “The Road Warrior” (1981), “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome” (1985) and now, “Mad Max: Fury Road,” all from the same director, George Miller. His latest, much belated installment lacks a key ingredient (original star Mel Gibson) but follows the trend of each film upping the ante in size. Everything here, the sets, characters, action sequences, and even the sub textual themes, are big. At 71 years old, Miller (a visual genius whose kinetic works range from “Lorenzo’s Oil” to “The Witches of Eastwick”) has not made a safe, mainstream-courting reboot, remake or rip-off. “Fury Road” is a proper fourth episode in the adventures of “Mad” Max Rockatansky and is every bit as weird, bold and rusty barb wire-tough as the films that came before it.

Max (now played by Tom Hardy) is captured by a bizarre tribe, who imprisons and exploits him for his blood (a commodity in world with scarce amounts of water).  A truly nasty piece of work named Immortan Joe (played by series veteran Hugh Keays-Byrne) controls the water and food, as well as the population at large. Joe proselytizes to his brutalized followers that paradise awaits them, sacrificing one’s life is a necessity and that his many wives are a treasure to protect. Joe is Miller’s answer to what a terrorist leader would look like in a post-apocalyptic desert, as the character’s religious mania proves to be his greatest means of controlling his populace. Enter Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron), a worker who turns against Joe and drives off on a rescue mission. With Joe’s armada of gun-toting road warriors in pursuit, Furiosa must learn to trust Max, who is a broken man but still an expert at survival.

You’ll know from the pre-title sequence if this movie is for you. The rough violence, relentless pace and Miller’s in-your-face approach to this crazy story is in plain view from the very beginning. It can be enthralling and off-putting but it’s worth hanging in there, as we’re not likely to see anything like this again for a long time.

The action sequences in “Mad Max: Fury Road” are so exciting, it put me in a state of bliss. It must have been a nightmare just to storyboard these complicated scenes, which are staged, shot and edited with extraordinary synchronicity. These are among the greatest (and most dangerous) auto stunts ever captured on film.

I missed Gibson, whose lived-in weariness and ability with physical comedy would have made his fourth time fun to watch. Hardy is an extraordinary actor, looks great in the role and gets down and dirty but never fully embodies the character. Much better is Theron, who gives a searing turn and provides the heart of the film. Nicholas Hoult brings a great deal of invention and presence to his role as Nux, Joe’s most durable follower, while Keays-Byrne (with only his Mad Hatter eyes visible) makes Joe a truly vile creature.

It looks like everyone went through hell and back to pull this off. “Mad Max: Fury Road” is berserk, shrill and amazing, with some of the most jaw-dropping imagery you’ll see all summer. Apparently, $150 million can buy you a lot of cardboard boxes.