Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga (R) ★★★

Review Date: May 22nd, 2024

Fans of George Miller's Mad Max world, which has now reached its fifth installment, can relax: despite Max's absence from Furiosa, the aesthetic hasn't changed. The look, feel, and sound of Fury Road is evident throughout this spin-off/prequel. In fact, if there's a complaint to be voiced, it's that Furiosa is almost too much like Fury Road to differentiate the two. While all the Mad Max movies (except perhaps the first) have relied more on stunts and action than narrative cohesiveness, Furiosa takes this to a new level. The story is almost irrelevant, especially since we know where it's going. We get enough details to flesh out the title character's backstory but this is more about enjoying and experiencing action set pieces than following Furiosa's journey. (One side benefit is that watching Furiosa makes Fury Road a more complete movie.)

Initially, Miller toyed with bringing back Charlize Theron and using de-aging technology on her, but he eventually decided that approach would be too computer-intensive; it was easier and more practical to recast the role (much as with Fury Road when Mel Gibson was at least 25 years too old to play Max). Throughout Furiosa, three actors play the part: Alyla Browne is Furiosa as a girl (this covers about 40% of the running time), Anya Taylor-Joy is Furiosa as a young woman, and Theron shows up in scenes from Fury Road during the end credits. A few other actors from Fury Road are back: John Howard as The People Eater, Angus Sampson as The Organic Mechanic, Nathan Jones as Rictus Erectus, and Josh Helman as Scrotus. Lachy Hulme takes over the role of Immortan Joe, Fury Road's chief villain, following the 2020 death of the character's originator, Hugh Keays-Byrne. A blink-and-you'll-miss-it Max cameo is provided by Jacob Tomuri, Tom Hardy's stunt-double in Fury Road.

Narratively, Furiosa is structured similarly to the first Mad Max: it starts out in seemingly placid circumstances then quickly gets really dark and turns into a revenge story. A young Furiosa is kidnapped by bandits and taken to meet Dr. Dementus (Chris Hemsworth), who is in the process of building a large army of thuggish followers. Dementus wants to learn the location of the secret habitat where Furiosa was raised but she won't talk. When her mother, Mary Jo Bassa (Charlee Fraser), is captured in a rescue attempt gone awry, the young girl must watch as Dementus orders Mary Jo's execution. Furiosa then becomes a bargaining chip between Dementus and another Wasteland warlord, Immortan Joe. She grows up in the Citadel pretending to be a boy before showing her mettle while working alongside Pretorian Jack (Tom Burke), a notorious caravan driver who exchanges water for gas and/or bullets. She never loses sight of her two goals, however: killing Dementus and returning home to somewhere that's green.

As is typical of a Mad Max film, Furiosa is mostly vehicle-related chase scenes punctuated by occasional downtimes. Exposition is relegated only to what's necessary to keep the story moving. Some of the set pieces are astounding but the movie feels overlong and suffers from an anticlimactic final 30 minutes. Although the central conflict is resolved, there's surprisingly little tension, due in large part to our recognition that Furiosa has to survive to become the woman we saw in Fury Road. In many ways, what should be the film's pinnacle feels like a bit of a letdown.

Although Anya Taylor-Joy is a fitting successor (or should that be precursor?) to Charlize Theron, the actress who impressed me the most was Alyla Browne, whose spunky portrayal of the child Furiosa captivates. Chris Hemsworth, the production's biggest name, plays against type as the heinous Dementus, who sometimes seems sentimental and kind-hearted until he does something unforgivable. For this portrayal, it's fair to wonder whether Hemsworth hearkened back to his work as "Fat Thor" in the two most recent Avengers movies. There's a little of that in Dementus, albeit curdled and darkened.

Although Miller uses CGI, he relies primarily on stunt work for the chases and fights. The Fall Guy may be 2024's most outward Valentine to the stunt industry, but Furiosa is a more accomplished production when it comes to their involvement. Both Hemsworth and Taylor-Joy do some of their own stunts, helping to maintain the illusion. Furiosa is also noteworthy for its use of sound. The throbbing, seat-rattling sound mix, which incorporates Tom Holkenborg's discordant score, is reason enough to see the film in a theater with the best sound system. A large screen is a plus but the biggest bang comes from a kick-ass, well-calibrated set of speakers. Furiosa will lose a lot in an older, run-down movie house and even more in a conventional home setup. Take away the spectacle aspect and the movie may seem repetitive and underwritten. In a premium movie house, however, the immersion is so complete that viewers may require a short recovery period once it's all over.

© 2024 James Berardinelli