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Charlize Theron curses to the sky in "Mad Max: Fury Road."

Mad Max: Fury Road is enough to make Furious 7 look sedate by comparison. There, I wrote it. That lead sentence is probably somewhat unfair to Furious 7, which had some fairly jaw-dropping car stunts. Then again, did Furious 7 have its bad guys being urged to victory by one vehicle that was just a giant concert stage with war drummers and a speed-metal guitarist playing a guitar that shoots flames? No, it did not! This new Mad Max film does, and that’s somewhat typical of the insanity on display here.

George Miller wanted to make a film of this years ago, but the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent dip in the economy hampered his efforts to obtain financing, and eventually Mel Gibson became too old and too anti-Semitic, so Tom Hardy now stars as Max Rockatansky. Taken prisoner by the warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who co-starred in the original Mad Max back in 1979), Max is rescued by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), one of Immortan’s commanders who has helped his entire harem of wives escape his clutches and is now making a run for what she calls The Green Place. Basically, the whole movie is Furiosa running from Immortan and his horde of warriors, with Max eventually recovering enough to make a solid contribution to their quest for freedom.

The movie has been garnering a lot of praise for focusing so much on the female characters. I’m sorry, I don’t find it to be that compelling as a feminist text. Yes, Theron is a fierce presence as a one-armed warrior willing to scrap for herself and the wives — she’s always more interesting when she taps into that feral side of hers. Yes, Furiosa comes from a matriarchal society, and when she goes back and finds it in tatters, she’s able to rescue most of the elders who make up its remnants. And yes, the women’s desire for freedom drives the plot. Oh God, did I just use the word “drives” like that? Sorry!

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Having accounted for all that, I don’t find the wives to be all that well-differentiated. One is well along into pregnancy (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), another has red hair (Riley Keough) and falls in love with Nux (Nicholas Hoult), the overlooked minion of Immortan Joe’s who ends up joining the caravan. I found myself thinking about Evan Glodell’s Bellflower, an independent movie that critiqued misogyny and referenced The Road Warrior in an insane monologue at the end. (You can find a transcript of that speech in my “best movie dialogue of 2011” post, but you’ll need to scroll to the end.) As self-indulgent as that film was, it gave a more shaded view of male power and powerlessness than this movie does.

As a car chase movie, though, this thing is the bomb. Besides the speed-metal guitarist, there’s also an extended bit at the beginning when Nux pursues Furiosa with Max strapped to the front of his car. The inventiveness of the chase sequences is matched with visual ingenuity; we see 1970s auto chassis mounted atop tank treads and monster-truck tires. The bit with the cars getting stuck in wet sand is a dexterous change of pace, and the climax involves cars with 20-foot poles mounted to them and guys climbing the poles so they can tilt themselves onto other cars. There’s even a nice fight sequence early on with all the cars stopped, as Max struggles against both Nux (whom he’s chained to) and Furiosa, backed by the women. The whole movie was filmed in the Namib Desert in southwest Africa, and cinematographer John Seale (who won an Oscar for The English Patient) films it so that you catch every grain of sand. The visual in the photo that accompanies this post, when Furiosa learns there’s little left of her childhood home and kneels while the sand blows around her, is breathtakingly beautiful. This is the purest piece of action filmmaking we’ve seen since The Raid 2, and it comes not from some young buck but from the 70-year-old director who made Babe. I’m impressed as hell.

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