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film review

Fury Road, starring Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron, feels like the perfect postapocalyptic movie for our own age of energy crises.

A double-barrelled shotgun enema straight to the senses, George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road is an exercise in relentless, pedal-to-the-metal momentum that can only qualify as savagely pleasurable. It's also a return to the now-gridlocked, postapocalyptic action-movie terrain mapped by Miller, the former upstart wunderkind who's now 70 and returning to automotive mayhem following a long detour into the talking-animal world (Babe, Happy Feet), for the first time in three decades.

That road being as heavily travelled as it now is, Miller's reboot is less a means of staking claim to new terrain than trampling the one he first mapped out. (Not to mention an ass-kicking reminder to the punks who followed.)

Just as the Australian writer-director's postapocalyptic-punk cartoon chase movie The Road Warrior ripped up the action-movie playbook back in 1981, Fury Road, through the sheer reduction of spectacle to a form of sex-with-a-gorilla stimulatory assault, lays waste to the landscape and takes no prisoners.

Unless, of course, one values contemplation and reflection as important commodities of the cinematic experience. As scarce and rare here as the water doled out by the hell town clown king Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) to the humans on whom his family of pale-skinned War Boys prey for blood and milk, these properties are locked up and rendered pointless almost as quickly as Max (Tom Hardy) is taken prisoner and repurposed as a human intravenous "blood bag" and hood ornament in the movie's full-on firehose-blast of an opening.

But if Miller's Road Warrior – itself a retooled follow-up to the drive-in vigilante exploitation of 1979's Mad Max – was as groundbreaking in its thematic and visual conception of a wasted world short on fossil fuels and overloaded on punk attitude, style and vehicular aggression, Fury Road takes as its crowning challenge topping its predecessor's legendary predilection for speed and making it an apocalyptic vanishing point in itself. So this is the way the world ends: not with a bang but a monster-truck meltdown.

By way of boiling elements down to their liquid-metal essentials, Miller – who has had this project on the back burner for decades – also reduces plot to the barest of established Mad Maxian minimalisms. Once again cast in the role of reluctant wasteland wagon-train driver to a community of exploited refugees (in this case, Joe's handful of breeder "wives," led by Charlize Theron's road-ready Furiosa), Max is practically a passenger in his own movie. But if even the casting of the comparatively sensitive, more overtly conflicted, alpha-male-type Hardy marks a minor dip in testosterone levels compared with Mel Gibson's Max, the movie's primary gesture to progressive political credentials is the motivation for the wall-to-wall autogeddon itself. Making a bid for the women's escape from the patriarchal desert gulag run by Joe, Furiosa hightails it for the "Green Land" with Max strapped to the chassis, and Joe's army of revved-up killer yahoos in hopped-up, fuel-injected pursuit.

Taking up fully more than three-quarters of the movie's two-hour running time, the chases themselves are showcases for Miller's inexhaustible genius for making the most out of what are basically just objects moving through space. Displaying sufficient ingenuity and innovation at high velocity to render almost every previous car-chase movie instantly redundant and enervated by comparison, Miller exhibits an almost demonic inspiration when it comes to speed.

Opening on the same weekend as Pitch Perfect 2, Mad Max: Fury Road is hardly likely to draw much of that movie's targeted female constituency across the multiplex corridor, but you've got to bless its close-cropped skull for trying. Somewhere beneath all that smoking wreckage is a movie about women taking the wheel and driving their own destiny. While Miller's feminist creds will invariably churn up vigorous debate and chatter in certain corners, most of Fury Road's constituency will likely be too high on the movie's entertainment fumes to be paying much attention.

Therein lies this mind-blowing movie's only, but nevertheless significant, flaw, not that it will matter much to those who've just had their skulls hosed clean from the experience. As brilliantly articulated as it is, from the vibrancy of the visuals to the hot-rod stone-age set design, and from the breathtaking precision of the editing to the state of sustained stimulation it miraculously achieves, Mad Max: Fury Road isn't about much more than momentum, the methamphetamine of motor movies.

Its true subject is the thrill of the chase and the means by which the movies express it, which is to say it's one hell of a ride in the same direction taken by the characters: deep into a desert of vast and horizonless emptiness.

For four movies now, Max has sought redemption for his past to realize it only comes fleetingly and always with a catch. So it may well be for Miller, who may have beaten all competitors at the game he first invented – but largely by sticking to the rules.