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Film review: ‘Furiosa’ takes ‘Mad Max’ saga to new heights despite stand-alone stumbles

Anya Taylor-Joy plays the titular Furiosa in “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga.” Directed and co-written by George Miller, the prequel to “Mad Max: Fury Road” released in theaters Friday. (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga”

Directed by George Miller

Warner Bros. Pictures

May 24

By Natalie Agnew

May 24, 2024 8:56 p.m.

This post was updated May 27 at 10:21 p.m.

Revenge is lukewarm in “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga,” an extravagant yet weightless prequel.

Pioneer of the postapocalypse George Miller returns to the wasteland for the fifth installment of the “Mad Max” saga and prequel to “Mad Max: Fury Road” in theaters Friday. Featuring Anya Taylor-Joy as Furiosa, the first film in the series without the titular Max motors off the path paved by its predecessor for an expansive revenge odyssey. Although the prequel is visually astonishing in its intricate worldbuilding, rifts in tonal consistency and recycled characterizations lead it to crumble under the weight of comparison.

[Related: Film review: The action-filled film ‘The Fall Guy’ serves as an homage to Hollywood stunt work]

Forty-five years after the release of the 1979 original, the setup for the series remains the same: Somewhere in the future lies a dystopian nuclear wasteland where rival factions grapple for survival. The franchise has led many lives, traversing from a scrappy low-budget classic to 2015’s Academy Award-winning “Fury Road,” starring Charlize Theron as Furiosa and Tom Hardy as Max. With fresh leads, “Furiosa” revives familiar collaborations, like production designer Colin Gibson’s magnificently crafted vehicular universe and Tom Holkenborg’s orchestrally industrial score.

This heroine’s epic begins at biblical heights when a young Furiosa (Alyla Browne) picks a ripe peach from the Eden-like Green Place and is almost immediately kidnapped by marauders. The motorcycle gang led by warlord Dr. Dementus (Chris Hemsworth) kills Furiosa’s mother when she attempts to save her daughter, a catalyst in the rage-fueled revenge tour to come. Director and writer Miller and co-writer Nick Lathouris catalog twisted decades over 148 minutes, and forceful performances animate this ambitious scale.

Harnessing horrifyingly raw torment reminiscent of her breakout performance in “The Witch,” Taylor-Joy’s absorbing screen presence does all the talking in a film in which she has 30 lines in total. Her darkly greased forehead shadows her unwavering gaze on her singular goal of revenge, and Hemsworth counters as the ultimate villain. Resting his Thor hammer to adopt a grittier archetype, Hemsworth theatrically sports an overgrown beard, facial prosthetics and an exaggerated version of his accent for a comically unhinged characterization. Touches from Academy Award-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan, like his flowing cape and open leather vest topped off by a trademark teddy bear, add to his pirate persona.

The picture takes a novelistic tenor, split into five chapters starting with “The Pole of Inaccessibility” and closing with “Beyond Vengeance.” A voice-over narration further codifies the legend. While a grand framework, these title cards and on-screen location descriptions provide explicit exposition for a plot comprehensible enough not to justify it. Raising tension, the first hour painstakingly pumps and releases the brakes as the narrow narrative lingers on Furiosa’s youth, with Taylor-Joy not appearing until the third chapter. Further disrupting the pacing are jarringly ample fade-to-black transitions between action sequences.

“Furiosa” picks up speed when the iconic War Rig hits the road with staggering action sequences framed by the lens of cinematographer Simon Duggan. Sprawling high-angle views construct the saturated golden landscape, including some particularly notable shots like a limitless army revealed to be a hyper-close-up of asphalt or the dark angel Furiosa appearing behind Dementus against the blazing horizon. Adventurous stunts are at their most riveting in extended chase sequence skirmishes, made all the more rewarding after the methodical buildup.

However, regardless of the plot’s scale, for a film titled “Furiosa,” frustratingly little is revealed about the development of the Imperator, resulting in her revenge arc’s hollow execution. An archetypal badass, Furiosa is instantaneously a crafty mechanic and a sniper with perfect aim, and time jumps provide a limited picture of the acquisition of said skills. Like the loss of her arm, her physical characteristics are gruesomely realized, but her motivation is restrained to one-note fury, and attempts at single-tear emotional resonance fall flat.

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Weaving between tragic epic and hair-raising action comedy, the flick triumphs in neither mode as overabundant amusement eclipses quieter, more haunting threads. Typical ridiculous flairs like Immortan Joe’s sons Rictus Erectus and Scrotus add necessary levity to the dreary subject matter. But overworked winks at the audience, such as dialogue constantly relayed through rickety microphones, prove distracting rather than humorous in scenes that rely on dramatic death-defying stakes. Though impressive in his commitment, Hemsworth’s Dementus almost inhabits an entirely different film, as his amplified hilarity and villainous speeches clash with Taylor-Joy’s silent movie depiction.

In a satisfyingly circular final scene, a door closes on the War Rig as Furiosa drives into the world of “Fury Road,” concluding the prequel where the next installment commences. Enthrallingly entertaining, “Furiosa” victoriously elevates its predecessor with sweeping worldbuilding but is incapable of standing alone, given one ends where the other begins. Admittedly, producing a follow-up to a widely hailed masterpiece is a herculean task, to put it mildly. But the comparison is unavoidable and harmful when the prequel’s success hinges upon the existence of a superior installment.

“Furiosa” is back for seconds, but after 45 years of material, there isn’t much left to chew on.

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Natalie Agnew
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