Desolate, post-apocalyptic landscapes, zombie-ridden or not, are perennial popular tourist destinations for 21st-century moviegoers and couch potatoes. Mad Max: Fury Road is like a visit to a World Heritage site. Some of us - old enough to remember when nuclear Armageddon had not yet given way to climate change as the main source of existential anxiety - harbor a special fondness for the young Mel Gibson as Max Rockatansky, the grieving, aggrieved former cop who motored across the Australian desert in Mad Max, The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome.
Fury Road, directed, like the others, by George Miller, is sort of a sequel, and also what we're now supposed to call a reboot. In any case, it doesn't traffic in the kind of half-jokey, half-sentimental self-consciousness that characterizes so much franchise entertainment these days. Unlike, say, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Fury Road does not usher you into a bright corporate universe where everything has been branded to within an inch of its life. The branding you witness here reminds you of the cruel etymology of the word, as a death's-head insignia - the mark of a tyrannical CEO known as Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) - is scorched into the flesh of people destined to live as property.
One of these, a designated "blood bag" kept alive to transfuse one of Joe's "war boys," is Max himself, played without a wasted word or gesture but with plenty of expressive grunts and snorts by Tom Hardy. Max, a Bogartian loner impelled by conscience to stick his (admirably thick) neck out for somebody, is really more sidekick than hero. The chief warrior on this road is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a rebel with a buzz cut, a prosthetic arm, a thousand-mile stare and a supremely righteous cause. Joe, whose empire runs on slave labor, keeps a harem of women for breeding. Furiosa has five of them (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoe Kravitz, Riley Keough, Courtney Eaton and Abbey Lee) hidden in her tanker truck, and she's running a kind of underground railroad operation in the guise of a trading mission. Joe wants his property back, and sets out in pursuit with a battalion of war boys, a heavy-metal guitarist and a fleet of customized retro-futuristic vehicles.
Let's back up for a moment. This Mad Max unfolds in fast, hectic, relentlessly linear motion. It starts quietly, with Max standing on a dusty outcropping, casually snacking on a two-headed gecko as he sketches the relevant background in voice-over. When things started going bad - when the world collapsed in a welter of greed, violence and stupidity - he failed to protect his wife and daughter. Their memory both haunts and grounds him, making him able, even in the worst circumstances, to recognize decency in himself and others.
And then the fights and chases commence. The whine and chug of souped-up engines, the whoosh of flames and the squeal of twisting metal - all the tried-and-true idioms of action filmmaking to make your heart beat faster. Speed and efficiency are of the essence, leavened with nasty biker wit and a blunt distaste for authority.
The first Mad Max, released in the United States in 1980 (with a soundtrack that dubbed the thick Australian accents), was a no-money Down Under cult-exploitation movie. The Road Warrior (1981) was a little fancier, but it still had the snarl and velocity of a punk-rock club show. Beyond Thunderdome (1985) was arena rock by comparison, but Miller - whose resume also includes The Witches of Eastwick, Babe: Pig in the City and both Happy Feet cartoon-penguin movies - has always stayed true to his scrappy, pragmatic roots. At 70, he has a master craftsman's intuitive sense of proportion and a visual artisan's mistrust of extraneous verbiage.
The script, which Miller wrote with Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris, has been whittled almost clean of expository dialogue and touchy-feely bushwa. A cut or a pan can explain or express much more than words. When Fury Road reaches for emotional grandeur it relies on faces - Theron could be a silent-movie heroine, despite the noise that surrounds her - and on Junkie XL's superb, full-throated score. When it wants to crack jokes, the movie reaches for quick, profane sight gags or elaborate feats of Newtonian improbability.
Nearly all of which unfold in real physical space. It's worth paying a few more dollars for 3-D: That newfangled format brings out the virtuosity of Miller's old-school approach. The themes of vengeance and solidarity, the wide-open spaces and the kinetic, ground-level movement mark Fury Road as a Western, and the filmmakers pay tribute to such masters of the genre as John Ford, Budd Boetticher and, not least, Chuck Jones, whose Road Runner cartoons are models of ingenuity and rigor.
Like Jones' universe, Miller's world has its rules. Viewers raised on the more baroque, digitally enabled forms of blockbuster spectacle are likely to admire the relative simplicity of Fury Road, while aficionados of the traditional slam-bang methods will revel in its coherence. Even in the most chaotic fights and collisions, everything makes sense. This is not a matter of realism - come on, now - but of imaginative discipline. And Miller demonstrates that great action filmmaking is not only a matter of physics but of ethics as well. There is cause and effect; there are choices and consequences.
There is also enormous pleasure in watching those consequences play out, and in encountering surprises along the way. Not twists - the plot moves from Point A to Point B and back again, ending up pretty much where you knew it would - but kinks and swerves, tricks of perspective and playful reversals of expectation. A sweet, almost wordless romance blossoms between a hapless war boy (Nicholas Hoult) and one of Joe's brides, as she and her comrades evolve from eye candy into a feminist guerrilla force. They are joined by a band of older women called the Vuvalini, who along with Furiosa, decide to give Immortan Joe's patriarchy a taste of its own medicine.
It's all great fun, and quite rousing as well - a large-scale genre movie that is at once unpretentious and unafraid to bring home a message. Way back in the Thunderdome days, Tina Turner sang, "We don't need another hero." That's more true than ever, especially during summer movie season. And Mad Max: Fury Road, like its namesake both humble and indomitable, isn't about heroism in the conventional, superpowered sense. It's about revolution.