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'Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga' review: Anya Taylor-Joy tastes hot asphalt and cold, cold revenge

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

Without permits, caution or anything to prove except everything, director George Miller shot “Mad Max” in 1977 on some beautifully forlorn stretches of Australian road with an ensemble of eager maniacs activating, and hyperactivating, a tale of a desolate near-future. At one point, a very young Mel Gibson as Max Rockatansky, the road warrior-lawman on the edge of insanity, mourns the killing of his boss and comrade. “He was so full of living, you know?” he says, fighting back tears in the super-healthy guy way. “He ran the franchise on it.”

Forty-six years of rough road later, here we are at the fifth “Mad Max” movie. Now 79, Miller remains an action fantasist of the highest order and has become the spiritual if very-much-alive cousin of the eulogized character in his first smash hit. (Its budget was $350,000, roughly $1.5 million in 2024 dollars.) “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” is a prequel to 2015’s lavishly nutty “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and is the work of a director full of living, albeit guided by an ever-darker vision of humankind barreling toward the cliff. He has run the franchise on it.

I’ll try to explain why I’m all over the highway on “Furiosa,” even as I’m recommending it. The best of it is spectacular, tapping into so many different ways to create and assemble images in contemporary big-budget filmmaking, you can barely keep track.

The story belongs to Furiosa, who we meet as a young girl played by Alyla Browne. In the barely human patriarchies of this parched post-apocalypse desert land, only the Vuvalini, aka the Tribe of Many Mothers, living in the Edenic paradise known as the Green Place, point to a better way.

The optimism lasts about 45 seconds in movie terms. Right off, Furiosa is abducted by the snarling, drooling Biker Horde, ruled by Dr. Dementus. This is the major new character; he’s played by Chris Hemsworth, who has most of the screenplay’s verbiage for better or worse. Visually, the character borrows Charlton Heston’s nose, Heston’s “Ben-Hur” chariot (pulled here by three tricked-up motorcycles; the vehicles in the “Mad Max” universe remain unbeatably weird and fantastically convincing), and Heston’s “Ten Commandments” beard.

“Furiosa” is actually pretty light on narrative, as written by director Miller and “Fury Road” co-writer Nick Lathouris. The crafty survival machine of the title meets a series of grueling, generally sadistic circumstances. Both Dementus, a nattering, twisted father figure of a psycho, and his sometime enemy, Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme, taking over for the late Hugh Keays-Byrne) have uses for Furiosa. She knows the location of the Green Place, though the miseries she has survived, painfully, and the rage in her heart, renders her mute for years. Even as a young adult, once Anya Taylor-Joy takes over the role an hour into the picture, Furiosa has little use for words.

 

There’s world-building aplenty. One fiefdom, The Citadel, resembles a sand-swept Middle-earth, or the Tower of Babel’s ambitious new condo development. Dementus cuts a deal with his enemy and gains control of nearby Gastown. The realms of “Fury Road” and now “Furiosa,” like their “Mad Max” franchise predecessors, run on petroleum (scarce), water (scarcer) and blood (spilling constantly, corpses and vivisected limbs strewn all over the desert).

As gratifyingly different as the “Mad Max” movies have been, at heart Miller is making ever-more-grandiose biker movies, but with more than bikes. “Furiosa” lives and breathes righteous retribution, setting her unblinking sights on the pig-men who killed her mother, and who enslave women as harem chattel.

The new film, rather portentously divided into solemn-sounding chapters, covers many years, which marks a change from previous “Mad Max” sagas. More pertinent to the overall viewing experience (mine, at least), “Furiosa” is the grimmest and most deliberately punishing of Miller’s visions. The occasional stabs at black comedy feel a little off. In this awful if fabulously designed near-future, as Dementus’ resident History Man (George Shevtsov, a wizened Shakespearean fool) asks in voice-over, “how must we brave the cruelties?” The movie provides the two hour, 28 minute answer.

The internal tensions within “Furiosa” fill the screen, even when they can’t resolve their contradictory natures. Miller’s not kidding around. He doesn’t like how humankind mistreats its home or degrades the culture with “ridiculous perversions and witty mutilations.” That phrase is actually heard in voice-over here; it’s Miller, and the franchise, having a little fun with the paradox at the center of the “Mad Max” universe. Cheap thrills, beautifully executed, plus some unsettling food for thought: That’s the idea. Beautifully executed cheap thrills without the “unsettling” part are rare enough.

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