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Mad Max: Fury Road review - 'a scintillating action picture, breathlessly edited, glorious to look at'

A sequel being released 30 years after its predecessor must be something of a record. But in fairness to George Miller he's been planning this film since 1988. In the original Mad Max, a transgressively violent dystopian thriller, Miller and Mel Gibson had made their names telling the story of Max Rockatansky, a motorcycle cop adrift in post-apocalyptic Australia. Released in 1980, the film was dismissed as tasteless schlock by critics but would soon become a cult classic, and it spawned two sequels, Mad Max 2 (1981) and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985).

By the time that last film came out, critics such as Roger Ebert had begun to realise what Miller was up to, and that his films were full of style and ideas, as well as gore. The story for Mad Max: Fury Road occurred to Miller in 1988, and he conceived the film as a road movie in which Max and his antagonists are fighting not over precious resources, but enslaved people. It took him more than a decade to find the time to make it, and in 2001 was all set to begin shooting when 9/11 happened.

A 2003 attempt was shut down mainly because of the outbreak of the Iraq War, and after that Mel Gibson appears to have lost interest. Heath Ledger was considered as his replacement but, after his death, when Miller returned to the project in 2010, Tom Hardy was cast as Max.

That sort of production history usually results in a stinker, but Mad Max: Fury Road is a wonderful exception to the rule. Because it's a scintillating action picture, breathlessly edited, glorious to look at.

Poor Max is still wandering Australia's desert wastes in the aftermath of civilisation's collapse when he's captured by feral soldiers, and taken to a remote desert kingdom. The Wasteland is a kind of feudal fascist state ruled by a growling, bellicose tyrant called King Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who controls the water supply and ekes it out to a pathetically grateful horde of underlings.

Bizarrely, Immortan Joe farms hefty women for their milk, which is considered a bit of a delicacy, and also maintains a harem of girls intended to provide him with heirs. Other slaves, Max among them, are used by the king's sickly warriors for transfusions of healthy blood, but while he's being dragged on a convoy across the desert he manages to escape.

And when he stumbles on a group of young women who've sneaked out of Wasteland, he finds common cause with their tight-lipped leader, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), and they began a battle to escape to freedom together.

The plot of Fury Road is deliberately basic. Miller never makes the mistake of explaining too much about his apocalyptic world, and little hints here and there invite you to fill in the gaps yourself. Instead he focuses entirely on the momentum of what, after 20 minutes of scene-setting, essentially becomes an extended chase movie.

The inventiveness and chutzpah with which Miller keeps this mad pursuit interesting is remarkable, as is the movie's cinematography, and design.

For this is a nightmarish future, in which all legal checks have been removed leaving the strong to prey on the weak with impunity. Bits and pieces of pop culture have survived in the bizarre pageantry of the king's retinue, which includes massed kodo drummers and a manic electric guitarist suspended off the front of a moving truck.

One-armed and crew-cut, Charlize Theron is still the best-looking person in the movie, though Rosie Huntington-Whiteley gives her a run for her money playing one of the king's heavily pregnant concubines.

Perhaps it's the writing, or maybe Tom Hardy's puzzling reluctance to seize the spotlight, but this is Ms Theron's picture, and her intensity and tenaciousness steals every scene from Hardy's gloomy and curiously lifeless Max.

(15A, 120mins)

Irish Independent

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