A FULL 30 YEARS after "Thunderdome," George Miller returns with a new "Mad Max" and shames any recent movie that claimed to be either fast or furious.
"Mad Max: Fury Road" crushes most recent action films under its monster truck wheels, and reminds us what eyeball-scorching marvels his movies were when first we saw them in 1979 and '80.
First there was "Mad Max" and its leather-and-mohawk punk energy, which, even in the form of dubbed VHS, made all other biker movies look like commercials for Can-Am trikes.
That vision became deeper and more polished in "The Road Warrior," which implied that our comfortable modern world was one commodity shortage away from bloody bedlam.
Miller's premise: A perpetual war for fuel will turn a sandy region of the world into a wasteland crawling with barbarous death cultists in souped-up stock cars with machines guns bolted to the beds - cavalry for a small army of flag-waving lunatics raping and slaughtering innocent people.
We loved it, and from our perch of '80s complacency, we even laughed:
Yeah, like that could happen.
Now, four decades on . . . not so funny.
And in case we don't get the connection to contemporary events, Miller makes it explicit in "Fury Road," which starts out at the desert compound of a warlord sometimes called Dad (to say this is a paternalistic society is putting mildly), who's borrowed some ideas from Boko Haram (not to mention Coca-Cola), and enforces them with a small army of zealots willing to die for him. (It's hard, at times, to keep in mind that Miller is also the director of "Happy Feet.")
"Live, die, live again" screams one (Nicholas Hoult) as he and a horde of eager martyrs set out on the heels of the fugitive Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a fearsome Amazon (even with one arm) who's filled a battle truck with secret cargo and sped off into the desert. At her side: freelance bad-ass Max (Tom Hardy), making his usual choice between self-interest and self-sacrifice.
And so commences a two-hour death race, enlivened with such impressive stunt work it's seriously hard to believe that 50 people weren't killed getting it all down on film.
And it's action with a purpose - Miller's potent opera of movement becomes a rolling horror-satire of mankind's greed, foolish short-termism and endless penchant for self-destruction.
Here, a world nearly depleted of fuel and bullets turns to water as its next must-have (and must-kill-for) hot commodity, so the movie should play well in Los Angeles.
A few grumblers may say that "Fury Road" looks a little too much like "The Road Warrior," but that's no knock in my book. Miller's low-angle compression shots - which make the road come at you in a new way - have never been equaled for their power to thrill. And the way he edits should stand as an example to others, without mentioning names (Peter Jackson, Michael Bay).
As for self-homage, Miller is entitled to a victory lap, given how prescient his movies have turned out to be.
And there are innovations. I loved the bungee-jumping boarding parties - men suspended from wobbly polls that swing from vehicle to vehicle. And the dirt-bike stunts will make Steve McQueen turn over in his grave, because he'll want to ride again.
Beyond the kinetic, there are some great images here - entire sequences shot in moonlight, an interlude in a phantasmagoric swamp.
Miller's screenplay is dsytopic, but not entirely so; the Furiosa/Max combat flotilla sets its compass in the vague direction of hope. Is there a world beyond this madhouse, a green world, a "place of many mothers?"