MOVIES - Mad Max: Fury Road, may be the most dangerous action movie ever made.

Some 9,600 miles from the deserts of NAMIBIA, George Miller sits in a sound-mixing studio on the Warner Bros. lot, preoccupied with a pair of discordant notes. The 70-year-old director is putting the final touches on his magnum opus, the 12-years-in-the-planning, $150 million Mad Max: Fury Road, a bonkers 120-minute chase where steel, death, and fanaticism meet on the sands of Africa. But Miller can’t think about all that right now. He’s trying to perfect the volume of two stringed instruments a cello and a bass violin to articulate the intensity of distrust between his two heroes: Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), a broken-down former cop, and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a war-rig operator with a partially mechanical arm. The scene involves Furiosa’s behemoth semi. Max is in the driver’s seat, hungry and weak, with a metal trap clamped over his face. He has tried, and failed, to hijack her truck, and now he needs to decide whether letting her into the cab is the way to go. Oh, and he’s being chased by an army of malcontents. “You’re sitting on 200 horsepower of nitro-boosted machine,” Furiosa growls, leaning into the cab. “I’d say you’ve got a five-minute head start. You want that thing off your face?”

The notes thrum in the background. “What do you think about reverbing those a bit more?” Miller asks his sound mixer, Chris Jenkins. Jenkins complies, the sound intensifies, and the moment spikes from unnerving to scary. Miller likes it. “Getting the tones just right, that’s the big trick,” he says later. “You have to look for moments when you can go quieter; otherwise the movie just becomes one big assault.”

But it is exactly that one glorious, relentless assault.  Fury Road (out May 15) is so overwhelming to the eyes, the ears, the mind, and even the heart that you may never look at action movies in quite the same way again. It’s a movie without sex, with almost no dialogue, set in a toxic wasteland ruled by the warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). The Immortan has enslaved every woman to breed and provide milk to his troops, boys who are dying from their poisoned world and who believe that by fighting for him they will be granted an idyllic afterlife. (All that’s missing from this allegory is the promise of 72 virgins.)

If that sounds a little heavy, we suggest you buckle up.  Fury Road may look like the summer’s most high-octane ride, but it also has a lot going on under the hood. This is a movie that challenges our perceptions about women and freedom, heroism and extremism, and perhaps movies themselves. “It’s really intense,” Theron says. “Even for somebody who was there, it’s a lot to take in. I left the theater feeling like I was just hit in the face.”

WHEN Mel Gibson first stepped out of that black Ford Falcon, armored in black leather and rage, in 1979’s Mad Max, he became the newest incarnation of a centuries-old archetype the lone righteous man yanked into heroism against his will seen in everything from Greek mythology (Odysseus) to Westerns (the Man With No Name) to Star Wars (Han Solo). In that first film Max is a man seeking revenge for the murder of his wife and son, a motivation that would fuel two ’80s sequels (The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) before the franchise petered out.

So when Miller decided, almost 30 years later, to reimagine this postapocalyptic world for a new millennium, he needed to rethink Max, too, right down to his core. This time Max is a man wounded by his past, with nothing to lose but nothing to live for, either. “[Since Thunderdome ] we are much more aware of post-traumatic stress,” says Miller, who has spent the intervening decades making life-affirming films such as  Lorenzo’s Oil and Happy Feet. “Our culture has shifted, and even our superhero myths are able to address more damaged characters. You can’t stay still with Max. You have to keep exploring.”

As the film opens, Max has been captured by the Immortan’s goons and hung upside down so they can drain his blood directly into their own arms. Not exactly a hero’s welcome. “It’s an interesting unveiling of someone who is dormant who crawls back into the present,” says Hardy, 37, a British actor who has built a career playing inscrutable men, including the masked villain Bane in The Dark Knight Rises and the mysterious lone driver in the indie Locke. “Rarely do you get a hero who comes in who’s a bit rubbish. He’s world-weary and tired and wants a pair of slippers and a nice warm bath, and he doesn’t have any of that.” 

All those elements intrigued Hardy, but he didn’t want to sign on to the film without the blessing of Gibson, the only other man to have played the role. So Hardy asked him to lunch, and brought him a goodwill token: a handmade bracelet fashioned out of military paracord. (In the new film, Hardy’s Max wears one just like it.) “I was a little bit intimidated,” Hardy says. “Who wouldn’t be?” But it worked. Gibson phoned Hardy’s agents after the meeting. “He said, ‘I think you may have possibly found someone madder than I am,’ ” Hardy says. “That’s a compliment, right?”

The real madness in Fury Road, though, comes not from Max but from Furiosa. To escape the slavery endured by all women, Furiosa has degendered herself into a sort of eunuch warrior. She intends to return to the home she was stolen away from as a child and forge a new world for herself and the five women the “property” of Immortan Joe she’s stolen in her rig.

The Immortan’s men take off after her, including Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who’s draining Max’s blood into his arm at the time. (He hits the road with Max, as his IV bag, strapped to the front of his car.) Furiosa is the change agent and the catalyst for everything that happens next. “The thing that drives her is this overwhelming feeling of wanting to take ownership of her life and wanting to go back to a place of safety,” says Theron, 39, who won an Oscar for her lead role in the 2003 drama Monster. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I didn’t think it was going to be an action movie that allowed me to explore a character this raw.”

It would be noteworthy if Miller had simply flipped the gender roles and made Furiosa the alpha to a beta Max. But the director has done something more provocative than that. What elevates Fury Road is that neither Max nor Furiosa is a lone fighter. They are interdependent, and their survival depends on each character’s ability to trust and rely on the other. “I was very attracted to the idea of having a female warrior as Max’s equal,” says Miller. “What would Max do with someone who’s very damaged? To what extent could his humanity be pulled out of these wild events?” Those questions prove to be more revealing than any romance would have been. That Miller answers them without ever taking his foot off the accelerator makes the movie not just remarkable but almost unprecedented. Getting there, though, was as brutal as the story itself.

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