Thirty years beyond Thunderdome, Max Rockatansky returns to cinemas, madder than ever, but more hardened; he’s a changed man—and not just because he’s now played by rising star Tom Hardy, who steps into the role originated by Mel Gibson in 1979’s Mad Max.

Australian filmmaker George Miller introduced audiences to the police officer who patrols a ravaged near future in the “Ozploitation” original, which provided motivation for our hero when his best friend on the force was burned alive by a savage motorcycle gang. When these ruthless outlaws, led by Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), went on to murder Max’s wife and infant son, he had only one thing left to live for: revenge.

Max’s vengeance continued in Miller’s superior sequel, 1982’s The Road Warrior, as the cynical former cop wandered an even more lawless land, finding himself defending an enclave of survivors from much larger and more terrifying gangs after society’s collapse. Then Miller took us into post-apocalyptic territory with 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, but his heart didn’t seem to be in it anymore. Perhaps that explains the presence of a co-director, George Ogilvie. In any case, the film was a disappointment.

That’s not the case with this fourth installment, which is a masterpiece of movement. The Road Warrior culminated in a 14-minute chase sequence that found Max behind the wheel as he was pursued on all sides by a band of murderous bandits. In hindsight, this celebrated scene seems to have served as a test run for Mad Max: Fury Road, which the 70-year-old Miller has essentially distilled into a single two-hour chase sequence in conjunction with stunt coordinator Guy Norris. This is pure cinema, and it shames the work of directors half Miller’s age.

Forgoing film in favor of digital cameras, Miller has nevertheless retained an analog feel, thanks to his resistance to CGI. Some 80 percent of the movie’s stunt work was captured live, in sequence, during several months of shooting in the Namibian desert.

As for that desert, it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Cinematographer John Seale has employed a starkly vivid, saturated color scheme, filled with bright oranges and deep blues—quite unlike the ugly browns and grays that grime up most post-apocalyptic productions.

Hardy’s Max, on the other hand, is a bit less colorful than Gibson’s. No longer interested in vengeance, this modern Max is defined by a lone instinct, which Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises’ Bane) announces in a voice-over at the movie’s outset: “survival.” While Gibson managed to crack a tiny smile 91 minutes into The Road Warrior’s 95-minute running time, Hardy offers no such relief during this picture’s relentless kineticism, with stunt work aided by a propulsive musical score by Junkie XL and tight editing overseen by Margaret Sixel.

And because the film is basically a feature-length chase scene, the script began not as a collection of words, but as a storyboard made up of more than 3,500 drawings, many created by Brendan McCarthy. The comic book artist is credited as a co-writer alongside Miller and Nick Lathouris, an actor who appeared in the original Mad Max as a character named Grease Rat. Unconventional, to be sure, but how better to illustrate the movie’s narrative, which focuses on dozens of killer rides hurtling across the swirling sands?

Central among the nearly 150 metallic beasts jury-rigged from automotive scrap by production designer Colin Gibson is the War Rig, a 78-foot 18-wheeler that combines a Czechoslovakian Tatra military off-roader with a 1940s Chevy Fleetmaster. And yes, that rear gun turret is made out of a Volkswagen Beetle. This monster truck is the object of pursuit, and it’s driven by Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, the picture’s true hero; it’s her vengeance that drives Fury Road, and the apathetic Max reluctantly joins her, the better to stay alive.

After all, Max is nearly killed during the film’s opening moments, when he’s captured by the “War Boys,” the cancer-stricken muscle for brutal warlord Immortan Joe (the returning Keays-Byrne, playing a more vile villain than Toecutter). Max becomes a “blood bag” for Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a War Boy who requires transfusions to live.

After Max’s capture, Furiosa, one of Joe’s most-trusted lieutenants, sets off on a supply run in her rig. But secretly, she’s stolen away with his most valued “property”—his five wives (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoë Kravitz, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee and Courtney Eaton)—whom she’s liberated.

Angered by her duplicity, the Immortan sends a small army of War Boys after Furiosa. Among them is Nux, who gives chase in his 1932 canted-wheeled Deuce Coupe with weaponized exhaust pipes. Chained to the front—crucifixion-style—is Max, who’s still hanging tough as Nux’s human IV bag.

Vehicular mayhem ensues as Max escapes his captor, teaming up with Furiosa, his fate now bound to her. As the armies of two more neighboring warlords converge on our heroes, the earlier films’ battles for oil and gas are replaced by a fight for something more precious: human life.

Mad Max: Fury Road  ***1/2

Starring Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoë Kravitz, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton, Nathan Jones, Megan Gale, Josh Helman, John Howard, Richard Carter, Greg van Borssum, Melissa Jaffer, Coco Jack Gillies and Hugh Keays-Byrne. Written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris. Directed by George Miller. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway and in the suburbs.

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