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‘Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga’ Review: Anya Taylor-Joy and Chris Hemsworth in George Miller’s Fitfully Propulsive ‘Fury Road’ Prequel

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Hate to be a grouch when legions of social media film bros are breathlessly worshipping at the altar of The Demi-God of Cinema, George Miller, but Furiosa is a big step down from Mad Max: Fury Road. Whereas the 2015 instant action classic had grit, gravitas and turbo-charged propulsion that wouldn’t quit, this fifth installment in the dystopian saga grinds on in fits and starts, with little tension or fluidity in a narrative whose shapelessness is heightened by its pretentious chapter structure.

Anya Taylor-Joy is a fierce presence in the title role and Chris Hemsworth is clearly having fun as a gonzo Wasteland warlord, but the mythmaking lacks muscle, just as the action mostly lacks the visual poetry of its predecessor.

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Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga

The Bottom Line Max is missed.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Release date: Friday, May 24
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Burke, Alyla Browne, Charlee Fraser, Lachy Hulme, Goran D. Kleut
Director: George Miller
Screenwriters: George Miller, Nico Lathouris
Rated R, 2 hours 28 minutes

That’s not to say there aren’t mind-blowing action sequences. One 15-minute set-piece mid-film, in which Alyla Browne as the 10-year-old title character makes way for Taylor-Joy 15 years later, is electrifying.

With black grease from auto-shop “The House of Holy Motors” smeared across her forehead like war paint, Furiosa stows away and then slips dexterously in and out of the driver’s cabin in a massive steel and chrome war rig pursued by fleets of bikers hurling firebombs and paragliders raining down hell from above. She also shimmies along the undercarriage as the vehicle roars across the desert, repairing damage and dispatching assailants like the warrior she was born to be.

Never one to dawdle over plot points when they can be folded into an explosive high-speed chase, Miller and co-writer Nico Lathouris also use that sequence to establish a quasi-romance between Furiosa and the dude at the war rig’s wheel, Praetorian Jack (an underused Tom Burke).

The character comes out of nowhere, but he serves to give Furiosa a crash course (literally) in the art of war, while encouraging her to burn rubber and find her homeland. Of course, anyone who’s seen Charlize Theron in Fury Road knows that Furiosa favors solo badassery, so it’s no surprise that Jack doesn’t stick around long. Even so, Miller could have given him a more ceremonious sendoff, especially since the scenes between Taylor-Joy and Burke are the parts that give the movie an actual heartbeat. Despite Praetorian Jack’s considerable promise as a character, he ends up being no substitute for Max.

While the story feeds directly into the action of Fury Road, Furiosa is closer in spirit and time frame to the films that started the franchise, Mad Max and its exhilarating direct sequel, released in the U.S. as The Road Warrior. The world has devolved into barbarism, with marauding gangs spreading terror across the land, but there are still people who remember a time before lawlessness. That applies to the community inhabiting the “Green Place,” a paradisiacal pocket of the land led by a benevolent matriarchy and somehow saved from ecocide.  

It all starts promisingly enough when the young Furiosa is abducted from that home by thugs on motorcycles and delivered to the power-crazed Dementus (Hemsworth), ruler of bikerdom, who wears a messiah cape and a teddy bear strapped to his back with a leather harness. It’s a look. The warlord is surrounded by a cabal of sages and sycophants who are mostly interchangeable aside from their facial disfigurements. Only the withered “History Man” appears to have a real function, spouting gobs of arcane knowledge and random bits of ponderous voiceover.

Furiosa’s sharp-shooting, machete-wielding mother Mary Jabasa (Charlee Fraser) gives chase and takes out a sizeable number of bikers in one of the more thrilling sequences. But her efforts to deliver Furiosa to safety fail. Her gruesome death, replete with crucifixion imagery, is the tragedy that shapes her daughter’s life and seeds her obsessive quest for revenge against the man who positions himself as a father figure.

Had that throughline been more robustly sustained, the movie might have built some emotional heft. Instead, the inevitable moment when Furiosa faces off with Dementus to demand the return of her lost childhood is kept on hold — and the warlord kept offscreen — for far too long while a messy and not especially interesting power struggle ensues.

The object is Dementus’ bid to gain control of the Citadel, the resource-rich rocky stronghold of diseased tyrant Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme, taking over from Fury Road’s Hugh Keays-Byrne, who died in 2020), protected by his War Boys. But the plotting is so sludgy and lacking in strategic detail that the endless back and forth across the desert starts to play like a Monster Trucks-type demolition derby, only with freakier characters, more elaborate vehicles and extra carnage.

Too much of the movie just plays like boys with toys, whereas Miller seems convinced he’s tapping into some kind of fantastical legend. Ambitions of that type already fell flat with the director’s last non-Max feature, the tedious djinn and tonic Three Thousand Years of Longing.

In Dementus’ first assault on the Citadel, his biker army is all but annihilated, and beyond forming a short-lived coalition with another crew led by Octoboss (Goran D. Kleut), who’s like a Dementor with Maleficent headgear, he never seems to have much of a plan. It’s clear he’s a take-everything kind of warmonger — he wants the food and water produced at the Citadel, the ammunition and arms from the Bullet Farm and the gasoline from Gas Town. But his method is mostly charging into the fray, shouting battle cries or tossing out Australian drollery.

As an unhinged antagonist, Dementus has his roguish charms, vaingloriously crossing the sands like Ben Hur on a chariot pulled by three motorcycles. It’s a glorious image, with Hemsworth sporting his regular flowing Thor locks, adding a handlebar mustache and forked beard, all stained blood red.

But making the character just a nuttier version of a jokey Australian male stereotype also robs him of the dimensionality that any villain who’s going to support Miller’s reach for mythic proportions would seem to require. Slapping on self-important chapter headings like The Pole of Inaccessibility or Lessons From the Wasteland is not enough to give the storytelling more weight and it only adds to the movie’s halting rhythms.

There are also lapses of clarity in the script. One unlikely plot point has Furiosa, thanks to a buzz cut and a hoodie, remaining unidentified for a significant length of time as she makes herself indispensable and becomes a highly skilled part of Citadel operations.

That tactic does get her close enough to Immortan Joe to observe his wives, who are being bred like livestock for healthy male heirs, and whose deliverance from reproductive servitude was a major part of Fury Road. But given that Furiosa’s introduction to the Citadel clan comes with the discovery that her health and lack of mutations would make her a fine addition to the breeding program, it’s confusing that no one seems to notice she’s gone for the longest time.

Miller is so busy with elaborate design details and vehicular choreography that it’s almost as if he doesn’t care about story sense.

It must be said that while the stunts are frequently spectacular, the visuals point up the downgrade from master cinematographer John Seale to Simon Duggan, who’s certainly capable but can’t quite whip up the majesty to disguise a lot of glaringly obvious CG and soundstage work. Dropping clips from Fury Road into the end credits also underlines how ordinary Furiosa often looks when it’s not hurtling along at an accelerated rate.

And it’s just as well that the majority of the dialogue is disposable, because the amped-up sound mix renders great chunks of it inaudible beneath the ferocious growl of the motors and the thunderous notes of Tom Holkenborg’s score.

Regardless of its weaknesses, a lot of people are going to be all in on Furiosa (though for the love of God, can someone call a moratorium on the fan base endlessly posting “Let’s GOOOOO!”) and the early-summer release looks to be a strong bet for Warners. Taylor-Joy — and no less so the wonderful Browne in the character’s younger years — delivers as an action hero with a fire inside her, cowed by nothing and no one. And we get to learn how that cool robotic arm came about.

Furiosa’s ultimate reckoning with Dementus fulfils the revenge promise even if Miller can’t resist stoking the mythic aspect by having alternate versions of the warlord’s fate, attempting to make it the stuff of legend. This time, not quite.

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