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Review: ‘Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga’ is all gas and no brakes, but occasionally trips on its own ambition

Anya Taylor-Joy steps out of a car with a shotgun during a scene in “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga.” The movie was released in theaters May 24. Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

When “Mad Max: Fury Road” hit theaters in 2015, it instantly became a beloved action film among the franchise’s fans and general moviegoers alike. Nine years later, director George Miller’s follow-up is finally here.

“Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” is set before its predecessor and tells the story of Furiosa (Anya Taylor-Joy), previously played by Charlize Theron. While fans of the franchise may have hoped for a follow-up to “Fury Road,” “Furiosa” is here to expand on the character’s story — for better and for worse. The film chronicles her time in captivity with the wicked gang leader Dementus (Chris Hemsworth) and her subsequent odyssey for revenge.

Many hallmarks of the Mad Max franchise are present in “Furiosa.” Sweeping, vacant shots of deserts — aptly part of the universe’s main setting, “The Wasteland” — give way to explosive action sequences featuring trucks, motorcycles and torqued-up cars. Repugnant-looking characters are adorned in chains and masks. The film certainly looks every bit like a “Mad Max” film, and to some extent, it plays the part.

“Fury Road” was a 120-minute gauntlet of nonstop action, but interwoven with the chaos was the developing relationship between Theron’s Furiosa and that film’s title character, the former-cop-turned-loner Max (Tom Hardy). In “Furiosa,” the formula properly honors that dynamic. There are plenty of high-octane action sequences, and when the parachute lancers attack the War Rig and the rocking score blares from all sides, it feels like the very best of what this wild franchise has to offer.

Where “Furiosa” veers off course is not in the pulse-pounding action, the ironically serene production design or the quality of acting, but in the setup. There is an abrasive, perhaps inherent, feeling throughout the film that this is indeed a prequel. An errant cutaway to a recreation of the “Fury Road” opening shot and odd moments of exposition clutter the film with a forced sense of cinematic wordiness.

Sometimes the mystery is cooler than the reasoning.

But for every moment “Furiosa” stumbles, it also soars with a firm grasp on what makes this franchise so unique and exhilarating. Jumpy editing and over-the-top explosives embody its endearing style — both feet on the gas with no signs of slowing down. From the film’s opening cat-and-mouse chase, through the sprawling assault on the War Rig to the very end when Furiosa confronts Dementus, there’s no shortage of excitement.

Taylor-Joy gives a commanding performance as the title character: Her mugs are mean, her eyes are angry and her punches are vicious. Her physicality and movements are that of the rugged warrior that stole the spotlight in “Fury Road.” When the film slows down for emotional development, her wide eyes and stoic gaze provide a lifeline for the audience to sympathize with her pain.

Those breaks in action are another obstacle that “Furiosa” hurdles. In keeping with the breakneck pace of “Fury Road,” this film holds the more serious emotions at arm’s length. The same hint of admiration and companionship that was so prevalent between Furiosa and Max in “Fury Road” and made their dynamic so delectable is every bit as entrancing here. Furiosa’s relationship with Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke), the driver of the War Rig, is a clear parallel to her and Max’s — it echoes what the audience knows. Their trust is built through the action. Such a feat of character development is impressive to achieve — and Miller has now accomplished it twice.

While Taylor-Joy hits a home run for her performance — in part due to her own undeniable talent and an impressive script — Hemsworth never quite matches the energy with his portrayal of Dementus. Though he certainly appears to be having fun with the role, the character is written into a hole with shallow motivations. His desire to take is fine — especially for this universe’s storied commodity wars and themes of greed — but even for a character of his stature, there was a certain physicality missing from his performance.

No vicious display of cruelty to impose his presence? The climax of the opening set piece nearly gets there, but the predictability behind it negates the establishment of the threat. The motorcycle drawing and quartering is as fun as it is wince-inducing, but in a franchise where such epic displays are commonplace, one can’t help but think there’s another level to achieve. 

While “Furiosa” is a string of cinematic knockout punches, with each one landing more impressively than the last, the film can’t quite get away from its need to associate itself with “Fury Road.” As the saying goes, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” In an ideal world, “Furiosa” would be judged on its own merits, but it flaunts its relation to the 2015 film so brazenly that the ending is a messy, out-of-place montage of “Fury Road’s” best moments.

Despite its flaws, “Furiosa” is a raucously good time. Taylor-Joy redefines the iconic title character and gives new layers to “Fury Road.” Canonizing new moments that fit into established films like a square peg going into its appropriate hole is one badge of a successful prequel. While the film occasionally stumbles into predictable pitfalls, “Furiosa” rides eternal into the ranks of all-time entertaining action films.

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