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Original caricature by Jeff York of Anya Taylor-Joy and Chris Hemsworth in FURIOSA: A MAD MAX SAGA (copyright 2024)

It’s all about the fuel.

What drives the post-apocalyptic future down under in Australia. What drives mad men in their quest for power in such an environment. And what drives an innocent young woman to seek single-minded revenge against such men who wronged her and her family.

FURIOSA: A MAD MAX SAGA, the origins story of the breakout character in the ginormous critical and box office success MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015), roars into theaters in typical franchise fashion. And like all of the other four films before it, starting with MAD MAX in 1979, so too is this movie’s narrative preoccupied with those scrambling to survive after a ravaged earth becomes almost uninhabitable. Additionally, the screen is once again filled with awful, preening, macho, male villains. But this take differentiates itself by being a much darker tale. It’s a revenge story; bleaker, meaner and far less funny than its predecessors. FURIOSA: A MAD MAX SAGA is still exciting beyond belief and crafted by incredible talents, but it may very well be the most serious and affecting in the bunch.

The movie showcases Furiosa, Charlize Theron’s iconic character in FURY ROAD nine years ago. Her back story begins as the young Furiosa (played by Alyla Browne) is snatched by biker warlord Dementus (Chris Hemsworth) and his men when they discover her home turf, a patch of land in the desert covered with foliage, fresh water, and fruit trees. Furiosa’s mother chases after her upon a motorbike, not only to save her child, but to protect their version of Shangri-La from outsiders like these violent marauders.

This provides the set-up for the first extended chase scene in the film and it’s a doozy. The action and stakes of a mother after her child are utterly palpable. Dementus ultimately prevails, however, and Furiosa becomes his prisoner as he returns to scouring the desert looking for fuel and resources for his tribe to survive on. Eventually, he discovers The Citadel, the domain of another warlord named Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme). Joe’s lair is a mountainous community, populated with a smattering of ordinary folk, a host of bald, painted white minions, and a bevy of comely, young wives. Dementus craves Joe’s world including his water reserve and fuel station, and sets out to take them from him. All the while, Furiosa (now played by Anya Taylor-Joy) grows up into a bitter teen, plotting a long game that includes escaping as well as taking down her captor.

Like all MAD MAX films, motor vehicles are as much characters in the story as any human, and the stunts on display here involving a bevy of choppers, muscle cars, and monster trucks are jaw-dropping. So are the costumes, production design, editing and cinematography throughout. Few build worlds on screen like the brilliant Miller, and this one is about as immersive as a film can get. But because it’s so darkly-tinged with its victimized female in the lead, it’s a significantly sadder film than any that have gone before it.   And even though Miller and fellow screenwriter Nick Lathouris try to write  Dementus as a verbose and snarky villain, his dialogue never quite achieves the level of memorable wit. Hemsworth is solid in the role, playing against his Thor-ish good guy persona, but he never quite makes his character the super baddie he needed to be.

Taylor-Joy, who doesn’t take over the role until almost an hour into the 148-minute running time, manages better, holding the screen with her unblinking intensity and brooding pout. Her Furiosa says precious little and at times, her muted voice, animalistic physicality, and glowering anger reminded me of the Feral Kid  in MAD MAX 2: THE ROAD WARRIOR (1981).  The best scene in the film finds FURIOSA crawling all about the “War Rig” a souped-up tanker that she’s trying to steal before she and its driver Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke) must work together to fend off attacking hordes sent by Dementus. Watching Taylor- Joy crawl under the rug, I worried that her character’s long locks would get caught in the gears, but the character keeps her head in more than one way. Still, it’s no wonder that Furiosa shaves her head in the third act to lessen her vulnerability.

While as technically brilliant in all of its below-the-line attributes as anything this side of DUNE: PART TWO, FURIOSA is is the first film in the franchise where green screen scenes are particularly notable. And some of the sped-up film looks less like the gonzo world Miller’s built and more like a cinematic crutch to convey speed even though for safety the chase scenes had to be shot as reasonable miles per hour. These shortcomings aren’t all that damaging, but they do notch this one a few levels below the state-of-the-art effects that characterized FURY ROAD.

What makes up for the nominal shortcomings, however, is Miller’s commitment to the tough truths on display in this focused revenge tale. Despite the lead actress’s name, there is no joy in this Furiosa as she is driven by rage and wrath. We cheer her on, of course, but even when she prevails there is so much pain in her that it’s hard not to mourn too.  This may be the saddest MAD MAX movie since the very first one, and while it’s still exceedingly enjoyable as a cinematic treat, it’s melancholy. Miller is commenting on how warring men ravage the planet, and yes, women. Thankfully, one victim, a little girl, has grown into a singular force to be reckoned with, but the toll life has taken on her is devastating nonetheless. And Miller, Taylor-Joy, et al. play those hard truths to the max.

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