'Mad Max: Fury Road'

Mad Max: Fury Road is the most delightful nightmare I can imagine. All its characters live some variation of a terribly bleak existence. Each entry in the series further diminishes what little hope there might be for this particular vision of humanity's future. And I can't get enough of it.

It's been 30 years since the last entry in the series, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and the novelty hasn't worn off even a little bit. I'll gleefully follow director George Miller to this barren wasteland again and again -- cackling with delight as his characters fight and kill for increasingly scarce scraps.

A couple decades have changed things a bit for Miller and the franchise, of course. Even if you pretend the last 10 years didn't happen, Mel Gibson is too old by now to reprise his role as Max. So in his place is Tom Hardy.

An almost-superstar -- feels like he's been one for a bit too long, come to think of it -- Hardy brings a different energy to the character than his predecessor. He's quieter, and not just because he spends most of the first quarter of the film wearing a steel mask that, even fixed to Hannibal Lecter's mug, would seem cruel and unusual. He's less wild-eyed than Gibson and far more beaten, if that's possible -- personal safety and survival are all that he seems to care about anymore, as if the rotten Earth has sucked every last optimistic fiber from his being. It's a wonder he's carrying on at all. At this point in Max's character arc, this all makes perfect sense.

There is now also space for an actress of Charlize Theron’s caliber. It’s hard to imagine the 1981 version of Theron (whoever that might be) featuring in The Road Warrior, but here she is in 2015, a glamorous Oscar winner, buzz cut and all, playing Imperator Furiosa, the driver of a War Rig, an enormous tanker truck that keeps the Citadel supplied with gas through periodic, danger-filled runs to Gas Town. An amputee, Furiosa is as hardened by her environment as Max and nearly as resourceful, but she possesses a bit more fight than her male counterpart. Her attempt to smuggle the child-bearing wives of the Citadel’s leader, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), out of the settlement in her Rig kicks off a breathless mad dash across the desert that makes up the entirety of Fury Road.

Two hours. Car (and truck and War Rig) chase on an epic scale. That’s it. Enjoy the show.

For all the changes in the real world over the intervening years, Mad Max’s hasn’t changed a bit (other than maybe getting worse). Yes, folks, George Miller has still got it. He’s got it maybe more than ever. Fury Road is wonderfully spare on plot details, especially spoken ones, but is so rich with visuals that there’s hardly a moment of confusion about anything that matters.

Hardy doesn’t utter his character’s name until the tail end of the film, but a sign scrawled with his blood type and some tubing connecting him to his captor War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult) even when he is playing the role of hood ornament is enough to tell us that Max is being kept alive because he is a universal blood donor. In another moment, one of Joe’s many War Boys sprays silver paint all around his mouth and shouts “Witness!” to his comrades before sacrificing his life in an attempt to apprehend Furiosa and the other women. Without ever having it explained, you instantly understand the level of devotion Joe inspires in his followers.

What do you, the viewer, really need to know to be entertained anyway, Miller seems to be saying. There is Furiosa, the true hero of this story, hurtling across the desert, in to and out of sandstorms, in an attempt to free a few unfortunate women from their demeaning lots in life — that of breeding mares for Immortan Joe. There is Mad Max, ever the reluctant savior. And there are the desperate hordes chasing them across this sprawling, orange expanse — past the Green Place and back. There is Rictus Erectus and the People Eater (guess what he does) and the flaming-electric-guitar-playing Doof Warrior. They snarl gruffly in Australian accents and say things like, “Oh, what a day, what a lovely day,” and, “I had a baby brother and he was perfect in every sense.” And you are left suitably frightened for Max and Furiosa without needing the origin story of any of their pursuers.

There’s an implicit mythology to every character — even the ones introduced and killed off within a few scenes — so you wind up inherently comfortable with the dizzying action sequences that fill up so much of the space that might otherwise be spent on exposition. Miller grants his viewers the freedom to be wholly wowed by rigs growling after each other on the sand and War Boys pole vaulting back and forth menacingly between them. There’s an assured confidence as Max hangs on precariously from a metal hook or as water released by Joe tumbles down from a cliff upon the thirsty denizens of the Citadel. You’ll know what you need when you need to know it. In the meantime, buckle up.

There are symbols and there is spectacle. They all fit snugly together in to a nearly perfect action thriller that three decades on is well worth the wait.