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‘Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga’ Is All Muscle Memory

Few filmmakers have ever understood the thrill of the chase like George Miller; on the verge of his 80th birthday, he’s still going pedal to the metal, in hot pursuit of himself. Enough time has passed to confirm that, as far as pure action cinema goes, 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road was a movie-industry pacesetter, at once bruising and weightless and possessed of the sort of serene velocity desired by so many would-be blockbusters but achieved by so few. Miller’s ruthless on-set methodology—the inverse of his avuncular public persona—is well documented. For better or worse (talk to Tom Hardy or Charlize Theron; they’re not talking to each other), it gets results. The question when it comes to the decade-in-the-making follow-up, Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga—which has already spawned more headlines about demanding filmmaking practices—is whether it’s possible to transcend that which was already transcendent. If it’s not, there’s another, even more pertinent question: Was another grueling round of physical and psychic anguish out in the outback really worth it?

Warner Bros. would surely answer “yes” to both, and nearly a decade after all the anxiety around whether Fury Road would recoup its massive budget, Furiosa, which premiered at Cannes before opening wide this week, is primed to do just fine at the box office. (Fury Road grossed nearly $400 million worldwide.) As for matters of quality, it feels right to employ an automotive metaphor for this most fuel-conscious of franchises: Your mileage may vary. Conceived by Miller as a direct prequel set 15 years before the narrative of Fury Road—and originally intended to be shot back-to-back with the 2015 film—Furiosa certainly feels of a piece with the larger Mad Max universe. The film’s sunblasted color palette, retro-futurist design elements, and breakneck speed—infused with dollops of lugubrious melancholy and absurdist humor—are all instantly recognizable. If Fury Road had an emblem, it was the incredibly named Doof Warrior, a blind, pallid guitarist playing aggro battle riffs on a double-necked guitar while doubling as a human hood ornament. The goofiness of the image didn’t undermine the intensity of the carnage so much as amplify it, like a speaker turned to 11. There’s nothing quite as inspired here, though, and the disparity is palpable. If Fury Road felt like a genuine flex, Furiosa is more like muscle memory.

The opening tableau gets the blood pumping: a perfectly red, Edenic apple, dangling from a tree on the verdant edges of a parched wasteland. Where the action of Fury Road was all about returning its most sympathetic characters—a harem of enslaved brides escaping from Immortan Joe and their gentlemanly chaperone, Mr. Rockatansky—to the possibly apocryphal realm known as the “Green Place,” Furiosa plays out as a tale of paradise lost … or stolen. No sooner has the preteen Furiosa (Alyla Browne) spotted the tasty fruit than she’s clobbered and kidnapped by the brutish members of a roving bike horde commanded by Dementus (Chris Hemsworth)—a petty despot who’s trying to move his clan up in the postapocalyptic pecking order. He figures he’s got himself a pretty good bargaining chip in a healthy little girl from a place of abundance, and besides, Furiosa reminds him of his own long-since-dead rug rats (a detail Hemsworth plays for just enough pathos).

Dementus’s squad members are impressively grotesque, but they’re not particularly tough; they barely survive the one-woman assault of Furiosa’s mother, Mary Jo (Charlee Fraser), a ferocious warrior who takes out a dozen thugs before finally losing the numbers game. Mary Jo sacrifices her life to save her daughter—and to keep her community hidden and free—but she can’t stop Furiosa from witnessing her death, an ordeal that hardens the girl into a dead-eyed vessel of vengeance.

It’s a credibly heartbreaking backstory, and it matches up nicely with the performance Theron gave in Fury Road—the hot, seething righteousness evident in every stick-shifting evasive maneuver and crowd-pleasing one-liner. Miller’s choice to shift what had always been a testosterone-heavy series toward a kind of hybridized girlboss/earth-mother feminism was canny, and it remains so; what Furiosa is banking on is that the intermediate incarnation of its namesake—played by Anya Taylor-Joy, who shows up around the midpoint of the film’s two-and-a-half-hour running time—will make for a similarly compelling heroine. She doesn’t, though it’s not a problem of casting: Taylor-Joy has the right lithe physicality for the part, and her anime-sized eyes were made for widening in anger and fear. The issue has more to do with the role itself, which is stranded in the same no-man’s-land as so many other prequel characterizations. Theron’s performance in Fury Road was pressurized not only by her skill as an actress, but by the fact that her character was a wild card: Not only did it feel like something intensely personal was at stake in her quest, but in a movie with such a kamikaze sense of drama—in which it seemed possible that anything could happen at any time—there was a genuine tremble of anxiety around her fate. With Furiosa, we’re simply not worried about what will happen in the same way, to the point that even something as visceral—and symbolically potent—as the character’s loss of a limb becomes insulated from authentic shock. The injury becomes more like a piece of continuity to be checked off so that even the sadistic cleverness of Miller’s staging at the moment of truth becomes secondary. More generally, though, Taylor-Joy never really gives the impression of a woman who’s been put through the wringer. If the fashion-magazine-spread glamour of Immortan Joe’s scantily clad, often-pregnant “breeders” in Fury Road played like a combined celebration and satire of the feminine ideal, Taylor-Joy’s Furiosa is always a bit too striking considering the horror of her circumstances; she’s too artfully rumpled in a movie where everybody else, male and female alike, seems to be at death’s door.

Abjection, it could be said, is Miller’s real subject in the Mad Max films, which are all allegories of gas-guzzling, conspicuous consumption and its devastating effects on individual and collective morality. In Fury Road, Miller produced a magnificent, almost biblical image of trickle-down economics (and spiritual thirst) in the passage where Hugh Keays-Byrne’s gas-masked dictator ascends to the top of his citadel and douses his huddled subjects in jets of water—sustenance and humiliation in a single deluge. Such ideas are key to the potency of Miller’s filmmaking, which is why it’s frustrating that the director feels the need to adorn Furiosa with an intermittent—and sanctimonious—voice-over that literalizes and underlines eco-horror themes already made eloquent by the barren landscapes and souped-up vehicles. For all of his excellent qualities as a director—including not only technical skill and exuberance, but a willingness to go for broke even when in the sanitized realm of children’s entertainment (Babe: Pig in the City, Happy Feet)—Miller’s missteps are often defined by a kind of overbearing fabulism: the kind that looks to distill human experience and impart morals. (Exhibit A: 2022’s ambitious but enervating Three Thousand Years of Longing, a misbegotten exercise in time-traveling fantasy and edifying exoticism.) “There will always be war,” intones Furiosa’s so-called History Man, mournfully cataloging centuries of conflict as a reminder that such violence is tragic—even as we’re being primed for an explosive climax in which Dementus and his followers will be eradicated once and for all.

That said, total ideological coherence is a mug’s game in genre cinema, and if Miller wants to have his anti-war cake and devour it too, he’s earned it. Regardless of the mild sense of diminishing returns around Furiosa’s various standoffs, showdowns, and high-speed pursuits, he’s still better at orchestrating this stuff than pretty much anybody else around, aided immeasurably by his Oscar-winning editor (and wife), Margaret Sixel, whose impulses for cutting on impact—without losing sight of either physical geography or emotional fallout—remain unparalleled. When Furiosa is really cooking—such as in a massive mid-film set piece involving a tricked-out oil tanker and a swarm of airborne marauders attacking from every possible angle—it’s possible (and pleasurable) to get swept up in the sheer rust-and-chrome majesty of the whole thing. There’s also a lot to like in the supporting performances: not only Hemsworth’s knowingly goofy villain, who exudes equal parts menace and mediocrity (the latter is especially funny when matched up against the magisterial Joe, who’s a born alpha), but also Tom Burke as a stoic, mercenary driver with enough echoes of Hardy’s Mad Max that he could almost be a stand-in. Burke is one of those actors who always understands the assignment, and he brings more coiled energy out of Taylor-Joy in their scenes together than any other member of the cast; considering Miller’s belief in storytelling without dialogue, Burke’s tight-lipped expressivity should have resulted in more screen time.

Not that Furiosa needed to be longer: As it is, the film has too many moments of drag, though they’re offset by wonderfully lyrical flourishes such as a time-lapse shot of a sprouting tree branch that swiftly adds years to the narrative. The first Mad Max was 90 minutes long, lean and mean in accordance with its tiny budget; The Road Warrior is pumped up and over-cranked and still one of the most breathless movies ever made. One of the by-products of creating a successful cinematic universe is that you’re expecting to continue building it outward so that it can sustain multiple installments; the irony is that in stretching his own inspirations to the point of redundancy (if not self-plagiarism), Miller contradicts his own conservationist principles. He seems to know it, too. Late in the film, a character pleads to be tortured on the grounds that simply killing him with a shot to the head isn’t enough of a punishment for his crimes. “Do you have it in you to make it epic?” he asks.

Miller does, of course, and the payoff to this particular query is a highlight—an illustration out of a terrifying children’s book. It’s in moments like these that Miller the artist overcomes Miller the project manager, yet in the end, the latter persona wins out for the duration of Furiosa; the film is a victory of engineering, of execution, of pieces sliding (or slamming) into their predetermined places. It doesn’t help that the end credits are interspersed with clips from Fury Road, which creates the nifty effect of putting certain story elements in order but also serves as a reminder, however fragmented, of how stratospheric that movie’s high points were and how its own unmistakably self-reflexive catchphrase—the War Boys’ fatal, euphoric cry of “Witness me!”—resonated with undeniable panache. Fury Road was a movie to witness; Furiosa is merely worth seeing.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.

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