Dave's Rating:

5.0

Death to the patriarchy.

"Who killed the world?" yells a minor character in Mad Max: Fury Road. This outburst comes after an earlier moment where camera pauses on the question painted on a cave wall. And since it's one of only a couple dozen complete and comprehensible sentences in the entire film, the fact that director/co-writer George Miller saw fit to repeat it amounts to Theme.

Of course, Miller knows who killed the world: the greedy, the powerful, and the exploitive. They killed it back in 1979 when he made Mad Max, a pioneering blast of doomed humanity, one that continued through the incredible Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, before finding itself teetering on the brink of self-parody in 1985's Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. If you want to know where Hollywood's post-apocalyptic aesthetic found its signifiers, it's all right there. Without it, the movies would have an entirely different vision of future despair.

The current greedy and powerful overlord is a freak in a plastic body cast and giant-fanged mask named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter in the original Max, and who here resembles a member of the band Gwar). Living at the top of a giant tower-cave with his band of spray-painted War Boys, he exploits their energetic labor and their dreams of Valhalla to enforce control over the grubby, desperate population below. He hoards water in a desert wasteland that's also short on food and fuel, he drains lactating mothers of their milk, he dominates model-like slave wives, and he collects blood. As the film opens, Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), a former police officer turned drifter, is captured and turned into a "blood bag." Impaled with a catheter, his plasma draining directly into the arm of War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult), Max is then imprisoned in a spiked face mask and strapped to the hood of a truckasaurus as it rages into road-battle. You'd be mad, too.

One-armed Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is who they're chasing. She's liberated Joe's team of wives, smuggling them to the safety of "The Green Place," Furiosa's long-dreamed-of childhood home. Along the way, more female power comes into play in the form of a biker gang of 70-year-old women whose own mission involves seed smuggling and horticultural preservation, a senior gardening club that'll slice your throat if you get in its way.

Max's assistance is welcome, even as Furiosa's distrust of his presence lingers. Hardy and Theron make for a forceful team here, communicating largely through grunts and stares, neither willing to bend or display feelings, even though both have serious emotional stakes in this rage-electrified race. He's haunted by the death of his family and his inability to save them. She wants "redemption," explicitly so, and the hope of un-killing the world while, presumably, establishing a benevolent matriarchy with her band of woman warriors. It's all quite human and tender, the last quality most action films strive to accomplish, but indicative of Miller's all-encompassing vision of post-civilization's potential to rebuild.

Miller's script (co-written by Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris) strips down the narrative to physical gestures, while his directorial choices involve loading the frame with dense detail, extreme noise, brutal violence, and safety-regulation-defying practical stunts. There is computer generated imagery, here, to be sure, but it's so seamlessly married to real vehicles really being destroyed as real human beings swing through the air, ride on swaying poles, play flaming guitars on the hoods of big rigs, and leap across fire-engulfed tankers on motorcycles, that the first thought you'll have after "AWESOME!" will be "How can all this be happening at once without actors and stunt people actually dying?"

There's more happening on screen than can be absorbed in one sitting, and to call Mad Max: Fury Road the best action film of 2015 may not be enough praise. Its commitment to extreme chasing in extreme vehicles, to gloriously, grotesquely detailed mayhem, is magnificent and singular. In the absence of other visionary filmmakers fighting for their chance to bring complete stories to the screen that are this brutal, funny, horrifying, humane, mayhem-packed and exhausting, it stands alone.

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