Scorched red earth, leather-clad bikers, deranged metalheads and a stone-faced avenging protagonist of few words: These are the familiar hallmarks of George Miller’s relentlessly satisfying “Mad Max” universe, which remains captivating as ever in the Australian director’s long-awaited fourth entry, “Mad Max: Fury Road,” a kinetic tone poem in blockbuster clothing.
It has been 30 years since the last anarchic outing, “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome” — so long that the iconic role of bereaved cop-turned-drifter in a dead world can no longer belong to aging, disgraced Mel Gibson. But the muted, hulking Tom Hardy is a natural fit for taking Max into another round of energizing showdowns between various demented figures battling for superiority in a twisted, fast-paced arena imported from the earlier movies, but never this spectacularly realized. Like Max himself, Miller’s stripped-down approach to staging intense and involving action sequences stands alone.
Before all else, the movie’s familiarity marks a return to form. In the years since his previous “Max” outings, Miller has developed a peculiar filmography of mainstream works that smuggle mature themes into popular material that never demands it — most successfully with “Babe: Pig in the City” and the first “Happy Feet” — even if the sheer cinematic virtuosity of the “Mad Max” movies went latent. Judging by the constant forward momentum of “Fury Road,” Miller had a lot to get out of his system: The movie starts at a high velocity and barely ever slows down.
Max has come a long way since his family’s death in the initial 1979 entry turned him into a solitary drifter in this dreary milieu, but it doesn’t take long to pick up where we left off. In an opening chase scene, Max’s typically reliable Interceptor gets knocked around by a group of white-faced marauders that lock him up in the dungeon run by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a grill-masked lunatic who lords over his minions in a horrific desert outpost where the dictator hogs a water supply and locks up his women to breed his army of ghoulish followers.Within minutes, we’re treated to roaring engines, dust-caked showdowns, a gripping chase through claustrophobic tunnels and a dangling crane. Miller swiftly beefs up these scenes with tidbits of backstory, as Max sees flashes of phantoms from the traumatic past that still haunts him. It’s just enough to provide a reminder of his chaotic present. “My world is fire and blood,” he intones in an opening voiceover, which is just as much a literal description of the ensuing mayhem as a figurative one.
Despite a visionary set design that consolidates the biker aesthetic of the second film with the grimly carnivalesque look of the second, “Fury Road” maintains a fairly straightforward narrative trajectory as it barrels ahead, almost entirely focused on a series of rapid-fire chase scenes.
After he escapes from a debilitating position strapped to the hood of his vehicle by one of his demonic captors, Max teams up with a throng of female slaves led by the trenchant Furiosa (a bald, scowling Charlize Theron, intimidating for reasons beyond her character’s metallic arm) to escape Immortan Joe’s daunting advances from behind the wheels of souped-up monster truck.
Furiosa hopes to pawn off her supplies and find a legendary world of greenery she remembers from her youth, while forming a tentative alliance with Max that deepens as the pair survive a series of violent encounters. Unwilling to trust anyone, but committed to survival at all costs, their unruly chemistry is the closest thing to a tight bond in the series since Max’s early family days. But their toughness has nothing on maniacal foe Immortan Joe — whose appearance recalls, oddly enough, the muffled Bane character Hardy played in “The Dark Knight Returns.” However, Joe retains a far more menacing edge thanks to the sparsity of details surrounding his rule. Even as he’s protected by throngs of white-powered foot soldiers at every turn, Joe’s a terrifically effective super villain unafraid to get his hands dirty.