Special Effects: A-
It's kind of sad when a quality action movie comes along -- an endangered species if ever there was one -- and it gets overshadowed at the box office by a sequel musical about rock star acapella singers.
Meanwhile, tired, CGI-loaded action-movie crap like Avengers: Age of Ultron rakes in the lion's share of the dough, which is mystifying. Granted, Mad Max: Fury Road is itself a franchise reboot, making it by definition unoriginal. What sets this film apart, however, is that it was directed by George Miller, who directed all three of the original Mad Max movies, and represents an update of his own vision, placing it perfectly within a 21st-century context. Indeed, this is likely what Miller would have given us from the beginning had he been given the same, exponentially larger budget ($150 million -- compared to the 1979 Mad Max's budget of $350,000 -- or roughly $1 million in 2015 dollars).
The original works best in its own historical context, though, and Fury Road stems from that. Certainly no one needs to have seen the previous films to understand and enjoy this one, a misperception that is perhaps one of Fury Road's issues. This is not quite a sequel, but more of a reimagining -- and, on its own terms, an exquisite one. The CGI is used sparingly, a refreshing difference from other would-be blockbusters, and the chase scenes are filmed the analog way, with real vehicles and real stunts. Most of what CGI is used simply enhances the Namibian lanscape on which the film was shot. The resulting experience is so invigorating, you hardly care about the nearly nonexistent plot.
It's the near-ish future, and water and fuel are scarce. A two-headed lizard in the opening shot suggests a post-radiated world. What little population remains is one in which deformities are common, but Max (Tom Hardy, competently conveying barely-contained crazy) remains in one piece -- it's just his brain that's a bit broken. But almost immediately, he's taken hostage by those who serve a deranged tyrant (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who incidentally also played the villain in the 1979 Mad Max). More than one gripping action sequence transpires between this and Max ultimately teaming up with Imperator Furiosa, who has kidnapped the four women in the tyrant's breeding harem in a possibly vain effort to take them to a better place.
Charlize Theron is all calm fury as Furiosa, and is easily the best thing in the movie. In a script light on emotional nuance (George Miller is a much better director than writer, apparently), Theron communicates a great deal with just the movement of her eyes. Her character is so prominent in this story, in fact, it's up for debate whether this is Tom Hardy's movie or Theron's. It doesn't matter, necessarily: they're both great.
And make no mistake: this movie is a thrill and a half. It won't grab you right away, and takes maybe twenty minutes to find its legs. But then it just gets progressively more exciting to watch and experience, until you can barely catch your breath. The effects, camera work and cinematography together make a bleak yet colorful world you can't take your eyes off of. The end is a relief only because with even this kind of awesome there's only so much you can take.