Overhype is a deadly thing, and I don't want to contribute to it. So let's just leave it at this: if you're on the fence about Mad Max: Fury Road, I think you should see it. Go now, and do not be overhyped. If you're sticking around to find out why I think you should see it, one reason is because it's got some really lovely landscape photography of the Namib Desert, standing in for the post-apocalyptic Australian Outback. Another reason is because it's the best action movie since - if I'm trying really hard to be conservative - Hard Boiled in 1992. The second reason, I concede, is probably the more compelling one.

This is, maybe, the film that George Miller was born to make. Oh, sure, Mad Max 2, AKA The Road Warrior, is flawless, divine masterpiece, but it didn't cost a titanic sum of money. Fury Road did, and Miller and crew made every penny count to the utmost. This is what happens when you take a man who spent the early years of his career creating entirely new ways of doing action cinema on a shoestring, provide him with 30 years to think about what he wanted to do next, and then give him all the budget he could require to realise it. Seeing scrappy, ingenious filmmakers make a whole lot of practically nothing is inspiring and exciting, but seeing them make a whole lot out of a whole lot is absolutely mindblowing. And also inspiring - in an age when sums of money that could buy and sell whole nations are used to produce nice and safe popcorn movies that feel very much the same as a dozen other movies that cost equally as much, it's close to a sacred experience to stumble across a movie that wants to use all those limitless resources to do something that we have never, ever seen before in a movie, and which most of us, I'd wager, couldn't even have imagined in the first place.

The film has characters, and a plot - eerily fucking good characters, and a plot that gets all sinewy and dense when you start to pick at it - but mostly, it has an overwhelming, damn near unendurable sense of momentum (it's the most active, physical viewing experience I've had in a very long time, with the short lulls in the action invariably leading to a long slow release of breath and the relaxation of muscles I didn't realise I was tensing up). The film opens with a slow, steady shot of Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) staring off at the desert in what used to be Australia, intoning in ragged voice-over the minute amount of backstory selected from the first three Mad Max pictures we need in order to know what's going on - Max was a cop before the world ended, and now he's roaming the wasteland trying to survive and forget - and after he kills and eats a two-headed mutant lizard, he hops in his V-8 Interceptor and starts the engines. The one in the car, and the one in the movie, which immediately turns into a chase and does not cease to be one until its second-to-last scene, though there are variations in who is being chased by whom and for what reason vary from moment to moment, and there are pauses throughout the narrative when the people giving chase are far enough in the background that they're not an immediate concern.

The main object of the chase isn't Max himself, but Furiosa (Charlize Theron), an Imperator in the army of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, whose colorful villain credentials include the psychopathic biker Toecutter back in the original Mad Max), leader of the Citadel. It's one of the three human outposts in those part - Gas Town and Bullet Farm are the others - centered on a warrior death cult that Joe has derived and made himself the center of; and among the seemingly inexhaustible charms of Fury Road, one that makes me happiest to contemplate is the developmental arc it continues to form with the original trilogy. Mad Max 2 shows post-apocalyptic world where the brightest light of civilisation is a disorganised, survivalist community a step above hunting and gathering; by the time of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, humanity has rediscovered towns, economy, and a cursory form of government; and here in Fury Road, religion has re-asserted itself, with the hierarchy and ritual attendant on those things.

But back to Furiosa. For reasons of her own, which are teased out throughout the movie, she has agreed to smuggle out five of Joe's "wives" - "breeding slaves" is rather more to the point, but religious despots have the luxury of defining terms - and bring them to safety far to the east of the region. Max, having already been captured by Joe's pasty white "war boys", is dragged along by one particularly zealous soldier named Nux (Nicholas Hoult), currently relying on Max as a blood donor to replenish his mostly exsanguinated, corpselike body. So Max is right at the heart of the Furiosa hunt, not that he gives any kind of shit, and as soon as he, the Imperator, and her five charges find themselves the only apparent survivors of a freakishly huge sandstorm, he's willing to abandon them to their doom, as long as he can get the hell away on Furiosa's heavily-armored war rig, a beastly hybrid of a semi truck and God knows what else. The only problem being that without her, he can't operate it, and she's not moving anywhere without the women she's protecting. So Max reluctantly becomes one half of the superhuman team trying to escape the combined military power of all three settlements, along with the nomadic terrorists who guard the canyon that's the only way deeper into the east.

Simple, pure, and responsible for the most crazed, beautifully-conceived, flawlessly executed car stunts in... ever? Probably ever. Any attempt to describe what happens across most of Fury Road, the first English-language movie I have ever seen that's more than 50% action setpieces, would quickly turn into tedious recitation of "this cool thing happened, and then this cool thing happened". Any attempt to describe how the filmmakers carried it off would quite stymie me, because I don't know, and "probably a fucking wizard" isn't a real answer. But it's flawless action, edited by Margaret Sixel to perfectly emphasise continuity across a whirlwind of shots from every angle as literally dozens of vehicles tear through the Namibian sand, with a simply phenomenal sound mix calling attention to every different component of every vehicle, and to Junkie XL's raging drums-and-guitar score, which is as rousing and intensifying to the viewer as it is to the characters onscreen (I'm going to allow myself one "this cool thing" aside: the giant truck of drums and a flamethrower guitar, present to arouse the war boys into a heightened state of bloodlust, and cunningly woven in and out of the film's soundscape, is pure popcorn movie pop-art genius). The film starts from the most outrageous concepts for staging fights, and only gets more and more involved and seemingly physically impossible as it goes along, with second unit director and stunt coordinator Guy Norris flinging human bodies and elaborately over-designed cars and trucks around the screen like the juggler of the gods. Meanwhile, John Seale's cinematography goes overboard on the boldest colors in the crayon box, leaving to one of the most potently saturated movies in recent memory, however limited its overall palette; at times it feels like Miller was answering a dare to prove that shooting a movie in almost nothing but the dreaded orange and teal could be uncompromisingly beautiful and absolutely essential to the creation of a particular mood in which the harsh sky and empty desert dominate every exterior moment.

Like all of the Mad Maxes, Fury Road's exposition happens at slantwise angles to the actual script, leaving us to collect data on the fly as the film goes along, and this time, we have to do it while the whole movie is moving at something close to the speed of sound. It's marvelous, not just because it frees the film up from having to slow down for talking, but because it permits the movie to shockingly dense with commentary about its society and our own, all of it explored so invisibly that it never for a fraction of a moment appears that the movie has anything else on its mind but adrenaline. But that is surely not the case: it's a study of women actively defying the patriarchy in the most literal possible meaning of that word, of the way that vague religious promises can be used to placate and control people, of the way that personality cults can shore up a totalitarian system of central control and make the exploited feel like they have a rooting interest in their exploiters. Miller and Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris's script dribbles out the necessary details to see these themes play out all out of order and in random places - the nature of Immortan Joe's death-and-rebirth religion especially shows up only when the characters would need it to - so it feels profoundly natural and organic, more a side-effect of the movie than the rhetorical justification for it.

And yet it's so deep in the film! It results in Fury Road boasting not just one of the most completely realised worlds in recent genre cinema, but two of the most complicated and interesting characters in Furiosa and Nux, the first combining raw feminism with a quiet self-loathing for all the good she hasn't done, the latter completing crisis-of-faith arc that is absurdly ambitious and unexpected for somebody that starts out as a thuggish sidekick. With the two chewiest parts, Theron and Hoult give the two best performances in a cast where nobody's less then strong; they, the cluster of actors playing the escaped sex slaves, and Hardy's more muted and soulful Max, far less detached and mythic than Mel Gibson's original take on the character (I do not know whether I think this works exclusively to the film's favor), give Fury Road the strong human spine it needs for its gonzo action to be emotionally involving on top being already quite exhilarating.

Providing spectacle of an unprecedented sort in the midst of one of the most fully fleshed-out artificial worlds in memory - here I am at the end, without even touching on Jenny Beavan's costume design and Colin Gibson's production design, despite those being two of the most important aspects of the whole movie, giving it the visual anchor it needs to feel real - Fury Road would already be quite a masterpiece of shallow entertainment, action with no purpose other than the sheer joy of movement and kinesis. But the sneaky intellectual depth of it, hardly the stuff of a philosophical text but impressively nuanced and complex for a movie that's devoting so much energy to expanding the vocabulary of movie action sequences, that's enough to put it on a level above even such recent instant-classics as The Raid, a film of pure genius that feels like cotton candy in comparison. Fury Road is a perfect action movie, and an improvement on the seemingly unimprovable Mad Max 2, and one of the best films I've seen all decade.

Reviews in this series
Mad Max (Miller, 1979)
Mad Max 2 AKA The Road Warrior (Miller, 1981)
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (Miller and Ogilvie, 1985)
Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller, 2015)