"Mad Max: Fury Road" marks the fourth time George Miller has returned to the world of his iconic vengeful marauder, making his way across a post-punk desert wasteland.

And yet there's never been a movie quite like this -- avant-garde action cinema on an enormous scale that manages to be utterly original and suffused with a rebellion against patriarchy that is thrilling to watch in this form.

The plot is deceptively simple: loner Max (Tom Hardy, skillfully replacing Mel Gibson) is roped into helping Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and five women escape the clutches of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a fearsome warlord who looks like a drugged-up, muscular blowup doll behind a teeth-baring mask.

It unfolds across a gargantuan landscape (actually Namibia) that combines the rusty dystopian aesthetic of the original trilogy with an expressionist sensibility offering a full-scale immersion in a world of symphonic craziness.

The movie plays like an apocalyptic fever dream, in which shaved henchmen covered in ghostly white body paint sacrifice themselves for trips to "Valhalla," enormous dust clouds engulf the characters amid flashes of red and orange and the bad guys' entourage includes a man in a bright red jump suit shredding on an electric guitar that blasts out flames.

Amid a summer season largely defined by dull franchises, this movie represents an anomaly: It's a work of imagination utterly unchecked by the usual constraints, in which a brilliant cinematic mind fuses his sense of kinetic action cinema with psychedelic visual montage. The picture rejects the constant cutting and overt exposition that have become hallmarks of the genre. It tells its story through images, sound design and fluid camera movements that practically lift you out of your chair and place you on the fury road alongside Max.

The real protagonist here, though, the real discovery, is Theron's steely-eyed, intense Furiosa, a female action hero unlike any we've seen, and perhaps the harbinger of a new age in which strong big-screen women no longer need a man to save them.

When it comes to correcting a woeful deficiency in that area, this is the movie we've been waiting for. Let it work its magic.

"Mad Max: Fury Road"
Directed by George Miller | Starring Tom Hardy,
Charlize Theron, Nicolas Hoult, Zoe Kravitz | Rated R