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Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga review: a thrilling new trip down Fury Road

Furiosa aims her rifle in "Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga."
Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga review: a thrilling new trip down Fury Road
“A spectacle that never runs out of visual steam, offering one breathtaking image after another.”
Pros
  • George Miller is still a mad genius
  • Anya Taylor-Joy is an expressive star
  • The imagery is spectacular
Cons
  • The action isn't quite Fury Road great

There’s a moment in Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga where a preening sociopathic warlord played by Chris Hemsworth meditates on the distinction in flavor between tears of joy and tears of sorrow. Many more of the latter will be shed over the course of this dazzling opus of death and destruction … that is, when the characters allow themselves to feel anything other than a throbbing, enduring desire for vengeance. The audience, however, might find their eyes welling from that other emotion, a perfectly reasonable response to the endless stream of astonishing images appearing before them. Movies this beautifully crafted are veritable machines of joy, even when what they’re depicting is a future without it, a merciless postapocalyptic hellscape.

Furiosa is blessed and cursed by its proximity to a modern classic. More than simply the fifth installment of the franchise George Miller ignited back in 1979, this latest Outback odyssey is a direct prequel to the last entry, the exhilarating death-race spectacular Mad Max: Fury Road. With that triumph, Miller realized his wildest gasoline dreams; after months in the desert colliding cars and egos, he emerged with the maddest Mad Max of them all — a true vision for an age of Hollywood blockbusters without any. But when you’ve made one of the great action movies, what can you possibly do for an encore?

Something different, Miller shrewdly reasons. Though Furiosa forges a visual and narrative connection to its predecessor — a first for a franchise that’s historically existed in a state of constant reinvention — it makes no attempt to top or even reproduce that movie’s jaw-dropping flurry of vehicular carnage. Whereas the last Max was a compressed blast of car-chase urgency, Furiosa sprawls like the arid wasteland its combatants traverse. It’s a bona fide novelistic epic, telling the tragic origin story of its title character, the metal-armed smuggler Charlize Theron so memorably, soulfully portrayed in Fury Road.

A woman hides in shadow in Furiosa.
Warner Bros. Pictures

Theron isn’t in Furiosa, but her instantly iconic performance — maybe the greatest action heroine turn since the heyday of Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor — looms over it like a blazing sun. The story begins in childhood, and in a futuristic Eden, the verdant oasis of innocence and “abundance” from which a young Furiosa (Alyla Browne) is snatched. This first chapter is a terrific miniature movie in its own right: a Western chase film in which the girl’s mother (Charlee Fraser) pursues her hapless captors on horseback and motorbike, sending shots ringing across the vast desert landscape Miller strikingly bathes in orange and blue. It’s equal parts David Lean and Sergio Leone.

An act of mercy costs the mother her life, and lands Furiosa in the clutches of Hemsworth’s Dementus, a biker kingpin who leads his caravan from a motorcycle chariot (an ingenious design choice that points to the prominence of sword-and-sandal pictures within the Mad Max scrap-yard genre lineage). Summoning the amused arrogance of his Thor without any of the leavening nobility, Hemsworth plays his villain as a product of his barbaric environment, a sauntering monster whose casual cruelty seems to have been branded onto him years earlier.

Something similar happens to Furiosa, who disappears for a while into the fabric of the plot — an innocent swallowed by a conflict between warring tribes, as her twisted guardian picks a fight with her future employer, the big bad of Fury Road, the deformed tyrant Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme, taking over for the late Hugh Keays-Byrne). Having lost her mother, Furiosa is passed between two toxic father figures. Their rivalry faintly reads as a political allegory: When Dementus makes his empty pitch of a better life to the war boys he hopes will overthrow Joe and crown him their new leader, it’s really just a choice between two sides of the same oppressive, patriarchal coin. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Furiosa and two men stand in Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga.
Warner Bros.

Furiosa has a downright Dickensian shape. We watch as its orphaned heroine grows up, navigating the dangers of a fallen world populated by Miller’s typically eccentric ensemble of Down Under vagabonds and rapscallions. Eventually, the starring role passes to Anya Taylor-Joy, who does wonders with those giant peepers of hers, staring and staring, guiding the emotions of the story with only a few lines of dialogue. It’s like watching a silent-era starlet play a Clint Eastwood desperado. Certainly, one can see a continuity between her performance and the way Theron revealed an anguish beneath the character’s fierce resolve. Furiosa traces the root of that pain, and enriches Fury Road in retrospect; you walk away knowing how she got so literally and figuratively steely.

You won’t miss Max — Hardy’s or Gibson’s. Furiosa’s baptism in blood and petrol will do. Miller does echo the outlaw spirit of the Road Warrior — and his Fury Road alliance — via a proxy character, a wheelman and commander played with the right aura of mythic, taciturn sensitivity by Tom Burke. Mostly, though, you’re reminded that the true star of Mad Max has always been the flavorful doomsday world-building. Furiosa has rich reservoirs of that, even if neither the costume nor the production design breaks much new ground for the franchise.

Again, Miller isn’t aiming for the locomotive momentum of Fury Road. Having already ascended to action-cinema Valhalla, he stretches the Mad Max formula out, capitalizing on the opportunity to tell a bigger, more leisurely story of adolescence corrupted by rage. (The episodic, chapter-book structure is more reminiscent of his last movie, the underrated Arabian Nights riff Three Thousand Years of Longing.) Meanwhile, the vehicular warfare goes a little lighter on the astonishing practical stunt work, with a bit more digitally achieved wonder and wizardry. However terrific the Oscar-winning results, the blank-check desert insanity of the Fury Road shoot was probably a once-in-a-lifetime luxury.

A bearded man looks ahead in Furiosa.
Chris Hemsworth in Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga Warner Bros.

Still, make no mistake: Every twisted-metal, highway showdown is animated by the director’s undiminished imagination, and the virtuosic clarity of his staging, a relentless crosscutting of escalating violence that never sacrifices coherence on the altar of automotive lunacy. Has anyone ever been better at tracking cars and trucks and bikes in feverish motion? If Furiosa doesn’t quite surpass its predecessor in the demolition derby department, it does build on that film’s cyberpunk shock and awe via the fanciful addition of parachutes, construction equipment, and a flying machine straight out of the da Vinci sketchbook.

In its own extravagant, 148-minute way, the film takes Mad Max full circle, twisting back around to the revenge-thriller motives of the Ozploitation original. Not that Miller is really after the simple, comforting catharsis of scores settled. Just as Fury Road subverted fan expectation by dropping Max into the passenger seat of the story, so too does Furiosa speed toward a kind of purposeful anti-climax, a final showdown leached of crowd-pleasing satisfaction and glory. Does Furiosa get her sweet revenge? Let’s just say that her crusade to balance the scales ends in a way that shines a new beacon of meaning upon her actions and decisions in the feature-length car chase to come.

FURIOSA : A MAD MAX SAGA | OFFICIAL TRAILER #2

This is a bleak vision of the future, a summer would-be blockbuster of senseless death and misery. It’s also a spectacle that never runs out of visual steam, offering one breathtaking image after another: bikes crossing the wasteland like a swarm of insects; Hemsworth’s villain dangling over a precipice as a stockpile of bullets floods over him and loosens his grip; a plant growing time-lapse fast around a scalp of buzzed-off hair to convey the changing of the seasons. No matter how withering its worldview, nothing this well-constructed could ever be less than a blast. With Furiosa, Miller finds joy in a joyless place.

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga is now playing in theaters everywhere. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.

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A.A. Dowd
A.A. Dowd, or Alex to his friends, is a writer and editor based in Chicago. He has held staff positions at The A.V. Club and…
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