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Furiosa's 'Mad Max' origin story is packed with explosives and extremes

 Anya Taylor-Joy plays the title character in <em>Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga.</em>
Jasin Boland
/
Warner Bros.
Anya Taylor-Joy plays the title character in Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga.

Nine years after the release of Mad Max: Fury Road, it doesn't feel too soon to call it one of the greatest Hollywood action movies ever made. We may have seen all the elements before in previous Mad Max movies: the post-apocalyptic setting and the grief-stricken road warrior, caught up in another desert demolition derby. But the director George Miller had never mashed them together with this much sustained excitement or sheer verve.

One of the movie's most delightful surprises was that Max himself, played by Tom Hardy, wasn't even its best character. That honor fell to the brilliant and brooding Imperator Furiosa, played by a staggering Charlize Theron in one of her best performances.

A character this unforgettable was destined to resurface, and now Miller has given us a prequel called Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga. Mad Max himself is nowhere to be seen, though; this is Furiosa's origin story. It begins in a lush oasis, called the Green Place, located somewhere in the desert, where Furiosa, a young girl played by Alyla Browne, has grown up in a secret society of mostly women.

But one day, male marauders on motorcycles invade the Green Place and kidnap Furiosa. Her mother, played by Charlee Fraser, follows in hot pursuit and briefly succeeds in getting her back. Knowing they will likely be captured again at any moment, Furiosa's mother hands her a seed from their home, the Green Place, and tells her to guard it carefully.

Sure enough, tragedy strikes soon after, leaving Furiosa desperate to not only break free, but also get revenge on her captors. Her chief target is the biker gang's leader, Dementus, played by a menacing Chris Hemsworth, who seems to relish playing a big personality in something other than a Thor movie for a change.

The plot thickens from there. Dementus forges an unholy alliance with the evil warlord Immortan Joe, whom Furiosa will later take on in Fury Road. That film spun a ruthlessly taut and concise story, set over a breathless few days and sustaining extraordinary momentum from start to finish.

The movie Furiosa, by contrast, divides into five chapters, stretched out over more than a decade, and sometimes bogs down in plot. Simply put, Furiosa bides her time, passing herself off as a boy working in Immortan Joe's auto garage. By the time Anya Taylor-Joy steps into the role, Furiosa has grown into an ace mechanic, a skilled driver and a powerhouse fighter — ready to take on Dementus, Immortan Joe and anyone else who might stand in her way.

This ushers in the movie's most thrilling sequence, in which Furiosa makes her escape from Immortan Joe's citadel by stowing away in a massive truck. The driver is a man named Praetorian Jack, played by the excellent Tom Burke, with whom Furiosa joins forces. Before long the truck is attacked, by whom and for what reason I honestly can't remember, but it doesn't matter: What matters is that we're watching a high-speed chase in a Mad Max movie, and Miller is entirely in his element.

As usual, he ramps up the vehicular action to ludicrous extremes, with wildly acrobatic stunts that feel inspired by everything from Buster Keaton to Looney Tunes. Even in moments when the CGI looks a little obvious, the mayhem is staged and shot with the kind of blissful coherence that you rarely see in a Hollywood blockbuster anymore. As the camera darts in and around the truck and drumbeats pound on the soundtrack, Furiosa comes fully into her own as an action hero, hurling dynamite one minute and climbing up on top of the truck to fend off an attacker the next.

Taylor-Joy has never played a role this physically demanding before — few actors have — and she meets the challenge head-on. For all that, I didn't always buy her as Furiosa, or at least the Furiosa I thought I knew from Fury Road. Taylor-Joy has a coolness here that feels very different from the fiery intensity that made Theron's performance so spectacular. There's something lacking in the script, as well: While Furiosa's motivation for revenge is entirely plausible, something about her arc feels a bit too psychologically tidy to grip or disturb you in the way it's supposed to.

In the end, the truest star of Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga is the post-apocalyptic world itself, with its burnt-orange dunes and towering desert citadels. Miller has said there are more Mad Max movies in store, and part of me hopes he never stops making them; the more he returns to this make-believe landscape, the more real it becomes.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.