'Mad Max' review: Blistering, vicious non-stop drive through hell

“Mad Max: Fury Road” is one of the most insane action movies ever made. It’s a steampunk fever dream, a hallucinatory and vicious drive through hell, and 70-year-old director George Miller is behind the wheel ... having a lovely, lovely day.

Miller completely re-imagines his original “Mad Max” universe with a full arsenal of modern filmmaking tools at his disposal. Tom Hardy takes the wheel from Mel Gibson, giving his own bleak take on the iconic post-apocalyptic hero. Unlike Gibson, Hardy’s Max is more a product of this desolate desert wasteland. This Max is not a hero by choice but by convenience.

“Fury Road” is an all-new story with some allusions to the originals, including his iconic car and the death of his family. (Prior knowledge of those films is unnecessary to understand this one). This outing opens with Max getting captured by a horde of bikers and thrown into their cliff-side prison. When he fails to escape, he becomes a slave and blood donor to one of the crazy gang members.

But “Fury Road” isn’t Max’s story. George Miller has discretely inserted a major female-driven action vehicle in yet another Hollywood blockbuster season of male dominated superheroes. This is Charlize Theron’s movie and hers alone and she kicks major biker gang booty.

Theron is Imperator Furiosa, a member of the cultish gang that captured Max. Their leader is the menacing masked man Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who also played the villain in the original 1979 “Mad Max”). Immortan Joe is a high priest living atop his skull mountain, promising reincarnation in Valhalla in lieu of servitude. He’s quite the sicko: he hoards water and gasoline from his lowly slaves and has a den of "breeders," a room of Victoria’s Secret models he impregnates to further his line. Furiosa – one of Immortan Joe’s entrusted leaders – betrays him, kidnaps his "breeders" and heads out into the vast desert wasteland in search of a new life. A spurned Immortan Joe unleashes his hounds of hell after her, hauling Max along.

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More often than not, Theron out-guns and out-maneuvers Max, twisting the age-old trope of the male-dominated action film, especially one with “Mad Max” in the title. Furiosa is an unflinching, badass character, and Theron avoids the expected character clichés. There’s little room for sentiment here. Max has a handful a lines. This is a ferocious fight for survival from the first frame to the last.

Also of note is Nicholas Hoult as one of the gang member determined to see Valhalla, before he has a re-awakening of sorts when life doesn’t quite turn out as he planned. Hoult is an under-appreciated young talent and his performance adds to the film’s absolute chaos.

“Fury Road” is non-stop action featuring mind-blowing original stunts and set-pieces. There are more than enough car chase movies but this one ranks near the top.

Production design is impeccable. The attention to detail is impressive, from hybrid car-tanks, altered guns and weapons to props like skull-shaped gear shifts. Even the elaborate costumes and extravagant sets make ‘Fury Road’ a wholly immersive experience. Immortan Joe’s face mask and breathing apparatus is delightfully sinister and should live on as an iconic image from this film.

Digital effects often prove cumbersome in movies today, but Miller weaves practical and digital effects in a seamless synergy that’s often poetic. He creates a fantasia of tangible metal and iron with the fluidity of billowing flames, violent sandstorms and synthetic, but vibrant, desert landscape hues. This a visual tapestry of the highest quality, a feast of styles that is as sumptuous as they come.

The editing and sound design, more than anything else, create the film’s illusion of chaos. This is a blistering, non-stop action film and feels as if the audience is a pebble tossed in a blender: it’s noisy and disorienting. That may sound awful, but Miller is such a master that the end result is a modern symphony of metal, fire and gunpowder.

The music by Junkie XL is certainly a far cry from the original melodic “Mad Max” soundscapes created by Brian May and Maurice Jarre respectively, but “Fury Road’s” propulsive, percussive and primal score effectively straps the audience to the grille and charges full-speed ahead.

With this single movie, George Miller has put to shame just about every big budget action movie from the past decade. If the original “Mad Max” films were the blueprints of chaos and disorder in post-apocalyptic worlds, then “Mad Max: Fury Road” has just re-written the entire book. A definite must-see.

Warner Bros. Pictures. Rated R. Running time: 2 hours.