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Rare is the summer action blockbuster that stands by its R rating, and doesn’t castrate itself in the service of its youngest audiences. Rarer still is such a movie with the punch and kick of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, the fourth installment of director George Miller’s post-apocalyptic saga. It’s been 30 years since Miller played in the Mad Max sandbox, and it’s clear from frame one that he hasn’t missed a step. But he has gained a few, as evidenced by a simply stated heartbeat that largely eluded its otherwise accomplished predecessors.

The raves you’ve read this week from the nation’s critics are right on the money. Nearly every aspect of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD – from the crisply clay sooted photography to the pulsating soundscapes to the breakneck but beautifully clean editing – is a stunner. Miller’s work here is like the very best of Spielberg’s set pieces, but it’s Spielberg unhinged. Balletic, nearly hallucinatory action fills every corner of the frame, yet you can easily follow every beat, movement and spacial relationship. It’s not spliced to Hell and back to cover up flaws in the execution (like something you’d see in the Jason Bourne films), because the vast majority of the action is performed practically and is actually unfolding before your eyes. The movie is intensely alive with the love of detailed flourishes both grandiose and minuscule. From its costumes to its stunts to its character design, the screen hasn’t burned with this much euphoria of invention in some time.

What’s missing from MAD MAX: FURY ROAD? Mad Max himself. Tom Hardy takes over the mantle of the title character from Mel Gibson, and it’s difficult to imagine a more ideal replacement. But even though Hardy is featured in a majority of the film’s scenes, it’s initially startling that he seems to take a backseat for most of its two-hour running time. Then you realize that this potential flaw has been committed by design. The character of Mad Max, and his placement in the film’s title, is actually a MacGuffin of sorts. The real star player in the film is Charlize Theron, who provides the film its subtle and unexpected emotional resonance. Women aren’t relegated to background players in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. Quite literally and without obvious grandstanding, the mission of the film lies in securing their empowerment in a genre which typically enslaves them.

A word of warning concerning the potential downfalls of the film’s presentation. Make sure you see it in a theater that has great sound, and seek out the 2D version, especially if your theater typically displays 3D product in fuzzy focus and low light levels. A beautifully executed spectacle like this deserves the perfect conditions in which to work its sensual magic. A

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