‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ Will Melt Your Face Off

George Miller’s sequel/reboot is one prolonged kickass car chase through the desert featuring death-defying stunts. But the biggest surprise is Charlize Theron’s one-armed Furiosa.

05.11.15 2:00 PM ET

The post-apocalypse hath no fury like a one-armed woman. Thirty years after audiences last ventured beyond the Thunderdome, it’s a road warrioress fueled by righteous wrath, not Mad Max, who sets the dystopian future on fire.

In Mad Max: Fury Road, director George Miller’s fourth trip to the Wasteland, Mad Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy, filling Mel Gibson’s dust-caked boots) is still a man haunted by the demons of his past. He wanders the cruel irradiated desert, wild-eyed and animalistic, plagued by the visions and voices of those he couldn’t save.

In his broken state Max is captured by the paint-huffing “War Boys,” an army of radiation-poisoned zealots devoted to white-haired warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a tyrant reliant on a skull-adorned ventilator who controls the water supply and uses it to rule over a desperate populace. Branded, muzzled, and shackled, Max is doomed to live the rest of his life as a human blood bag tethered to a sickly War Boy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult).

But when the steely Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) defects from Immortan Joe’s ranks harboring precious stolen cargo in her armored big rig, Max is hauled along with the War Boys for a high-speed desert pursuit. And when that cargo is revealed to be human—the five enslaved wives of Immortan Joe, who’ve made a break for freedom—Max breaks loose and reluctantly teams with Furiosa to head for a fabled safe land.

At 70, Miller still knows how to burn rubber and smash metal onscreen with more bone-jarring intensity than directors half his age. Mounting what’s essentially one continuous feature-length car chase with dazzling confidence and an unrelenting kinetic energy, he pulls off a rarity in Hollywood blockbusters these days: a muscular action masterpiece built on practical effects, weightier and more awe-inspiring than the empty-feeling CG pixelfests most studios spend hundreds of millions of dollars on every summer.

Not that Fury Road wasn’t a pricey, gargantuan undertaking. It cost a reported $150 million to make, in a shoot hampered by inclement weather that forced production to move from Australia to Namibia and went overbudget and overschedule. Miller might have easily stuck his actors against a green screen and just VFX-ed in the frenzied chaos of his diesel-fueled set pieces instead of orchestrating the complex death-defying sequences that propel Fury Road along. But where’s the fun in that?  

As in his previous Mad Max films, the danger feels deliciously real and the flames feel hot enough to melt Tom Hardy’s face off. Through dusty desert firestorms, BMX bandit assaults, and speeding skirmishes, Max and Furiosa leave a junkyard’s worth of satisfying wreckage littered in their wake as they’re hunted across the sand by vehicular war parties rolling deep in phalanxes of Frankensteined deathmobiles.

Fury Road often evokes the imagery and scenarios of Road Warrior, and to a lesser extent, Beyond Thunderdome, suggesting a loose continuity in the enemies and threats that populate Max’s eternal, eccentric adventures in the Wasteland. Hardy lends a captivating feral intensity to his PTSD-suffering antihero who wrestles, as he always does, over joining someone else’s cause versus going it alone.

Tom Hardy in "Mad Max: Fury Road."

But despite playing narrator and serving as our entry point into Fury Road, this isn’t really Max’s story. It’s Furiosa’s. And that’s the film’s single most significant new contribution to the Mad Max franchise: an intriguing new hero whose existential crisis and hard-bitten exploits match those of the original road warrior, and who happens to be a woman.

Fury Road doesn’t reveal much about how the grease-painted Furiosa scrapped her way up the ranks to Imperator status to command the coveted War Rig that she proceeds to steal, driving a two-ton target across the imposing desert—all the more fuel for future sequels/prequels, perhaps. But in tracking her quest to liberate herself and the Wives from the bonds of slavery, Miller vastly expands Mad Max’s world by exploring uncharted terrain, and answering a question none of the previous films thought to ask: What does it mean to be a woman in the Wasteland?

Descended from a matriarchal clan of lady warriors and kidnapped by Immortan Joe’s goons as a child, Theron’s Furiosa is, like Max, a hero of few words hauling around her share of emotional baggage. Forced to adopt masculine armor to survive in an unforgiving male-dominated society, she sports an androgynous shaved head and a mechanical arm; deliberately de-sexualized, she’s literally missing a part of herself. By the time we meet her she’s already risked her hard-won station to reclaim the identity she’s spent a lifetime suppressing and rejoin the female race.

On the flip side of femininity are the wives—The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whitely), Toast the Knowing (Zoe Kravitz), Capable (Riley Keough), The Dag (Abbey Lee), and Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eaton)—seemingly helpless concubines whose strengths emerge as Furiosa’s War Rig speeds through the desert.

Raised to be sexual objects and breeders, the Wives have seized a collective agency. “We are not things,” they affirm to one another and to themselves, a reminder of why they’ve left their lives of comfort and submission behind. Their regal de facto leader The Splendid, the Immortan’s very pregnant favorite baby mama, even surprises Max with her bravery before the others come into their own complex personalities in the course of battle.

Aside from an on-the-nose detour in which Furiosa spells out her personal quest for redemption, the script by Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nico Lathouris shows admirable restraint in avoiding over-exposition, leaving much of the story to unfold through and in the midst of explosive action.

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It’s in those action passages that the world of the Wasteland comes alive in the details, whether in a supercharged muscle car fitted with tank treads, aerial attacks by enemies atop poles that swing hundreds of feet in the air, a life-or-death gas-siphoning contest between characters perched precariously on the hoods of two racing vehicles, or the metal mayhem of the Doof Warrior, the War Boys’ battlefield beacon, who shreds wicked war cries from his flame-throwing guitar while strapped to mobile amps.

Fury Road condemns its big bad Immortan Joe, who rules his pious suicide soldier War Boys with promises of a hero’s welcome to Valhalla, and his equally repulsive brethren despots, The People Eater (John Howard) and The Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter), who have collectively divided the Wasteland’s resources and desert fiefdoms amongst them.

The allegory is stark—the one-percenters are hoarding their riches and marching the last vestiges of humanity toward a desperate and certain death, but one lone wolf in leather can’t save the world by himself. It turns out the people of the Wasteland did need another hero, a furious woman to match its “mad” man. They’re lucky this bleak dystopian future has her sitting squarely behind the wheel.