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Zaki's Review: Mad Max: Fury Road

05/15/2015 03:42 am ET | Updated May 14, 2016

I was first exposed to director George Miller's Mad Max series in 1987 when, at age seven, I watched the trilogy capper Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome during its premium cable run. I didn't understand much of it at the time, but I loved it all the same. It wasn't until several years later that I watched the preceding entries in the series, and they left even more of a mark. Especially the second one, The Road Warrior (a.k.a. Mad Max 2). Today, Miller's post-apocalyptic playground remains as vivid and well-realized as when it debuted, and the franchise remains a favorite.

Thus, as the latest Max entry, Fury Road, moved through development hell, going from potentiality to actuality, with Miller himself at the helm to shepherd his creation once again, I tried very hard to keep my excitement level in check. After all, the last time a director named George brought back a beloved brand after an extended interregnum... well, things didn't go so well. "Please," I thought to myself, sending a silent prayer to the movie gods, "after The Phantom Menace, after the Planet of the Apes remake, after Superman Returns, after Indiana Jones, just give me this one."

And by George, he's done it. I waited twenty-eight years for Mad Max: Fury Road, and I'm so glad it's not terrible.

Featuring Tom Hardy in the role that first launched Mel Gibson's star into the stratosphere, Fury Road is a worthy addition to the canon, one that recognizes there was nothing wrong with the setting as established in the extant trilogy, and as such, there's no need to follow the current Hollywood vogue of tearing the whole thing down in order to start from scratch. This is a continuation rather than a contradiction. More than that, it represents a welcome return by George Miller to the kind of anarchic action he hasn't directed in the three decades since Thunderdome.

The story (by Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nick Lathourisy) is deceptively simple. Wandering the nuclear irradiated outback of near-future Australia, ex-cop Max Rockatansky is captured and held prisoner by minions of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a despotic madman who hides his disfigured face and body behind ceremonial death's head armor and uses his control of the limited water supply to keep his subjects duly chastened. When his trusted aide Furiosa (Charlize Theron) uses the occasion of a supply run to escape from his clutches along with several of his concubines (some of whom are in a family way), Max finds himself inadvertently drawn into the chase.

As with the previous Max movies, there isn't any real attempt at serialization or continuity, but this is the same Max he's always been. Sure, he may look and sound like Tom Hardy now, but as before, he's still (despite his best efforts) the good guy who can't help but help others, so we know where he'll land in this particular conflict. What follows is an amped-up version of the final act chase sequence in 1981's Mad Max 2. While that one impressively sustained its energy for twenty-some minutes, Fury Road broadens its scope, serving essentially a two-hour chase punctuated by occasional moments to catch one's breath.

One of the narrative beauties of these films is the way they exist outside of time, where even the passage of literally decades between entries does nothing to diminish it feeling like part of a contiguous whole with its predecessors. The events of the nuclear exchange that serve as backstory for the Mad Max universe are so vague as to have occurred anywhere and anywhen. What's left then is the madcap anarchy that is this world, with Miller sprinkling details of life in nuked-out Australia in without context or explanation, leaving it for audiences to decipher their significance.

Such is the case with Fury Road. The bizarre stratification in Immortan Joe's cultish organization is laid out for us quickly, almost as a throwaway, just enough so that we have a sense of who to root for and who to toss tomatoes at. In a way it's even more impressive how well Miller and Co. are able to draw us in as the chase plays out. And speaking of the chase, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the effects. The glorious practical effects. In an age of increasing CGI overload, where every possible stunt we imagine can be realized in a computer's hard drive, there's no substitute for actual cars actually smashing into each another.

In terms of the cast, they're standouts across the board. This marks Theron's second appearance in a long-dormant franchise reboot (after 2012's mezzo-mezzo Prometheus), and she gives her character just the right blend of viciousness and vulnerability to make her arc feel believable. X-Men's Nicholas Hoult also makes a memorable appearance as Nux, one of Immortan Joe's foot-soldiers. And speaking of ol' Joe, he's a suitably menacing presence throughout, but thanks to his elaborate makeup and facial appliance, few will realize that he's played by the same man who memorably portrayed Max's very first baddie, the Toecutter, in the 1979 original.

Most importantly, we really have to talk about Tom Hardy and how perfect he is for this part. In the five years since he was first announced as the lead, Hardy's profile has only risen, and I'm gratified that my initial enthusiasm for his selection has been completely borne out. Bear in mind, Miller had ostensibly bid adieu to this series back in '85. Of course, rumors of a new installment never went away even as time passed. And when Miller finally felt moved to make Fury Road with Gibson in the early aughts, outside events intervened, with the outbreak of the Iraq war stymying plans to shoot in Morocco, delaying production, and ultimately leading Gibson to decide against reprising the role.

I remember following these developments in real time as they unfolded with a sense of increasing frustration that Max Rockatansky's road back to the screen was becoming so fraught that it may never happen at all. But having experienced the version of Fury Road that we got, I can't tell you how grateful I am for the daisy chain of interlocking Murphy's Law scenarios that led us to this moment. While the thought of Gibson not playing Max was unthinkable once, untethering actor and character was the only option if the franchise was going to live again. And I can't think of a better choice than Hardy to carry it forward. Mad Max is back! Was he ever gone? A