‘Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga’ Review: The Origin Story of Furiosa Has Dazzling Sequences, but George Miller’s Overstuffed Epic Is No ‘Fury Road’

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The first thing to say about “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” is that it’s not like any other “Mad Max” film. The movie, which runs 2 hours and 28 minutes, is teemingly, sprawlingly, phantasmagorically ambitious. Where “Mad Max: Fury Road” was set over three days, “Furiosa” takes place over 15 years and tells the origin story of Imperator Furiosa in five chapters (which come with titles like “The Pole of Inaccessibility”). The film has a cast of thousands of depraved hooligan bikers with rusty weapons and rotten teeth. At times, it feels like they’re getting ready to gather for Wasteland Woodstock.

The second thing to say about “Furiosa” is that though it contains a handful of awesome action moments, the action doesn’t dominate the way it did in previous “Mad Max” films. The director, George Miller, seems more invested this time in his world-building than he is in his road-warrior-ing.

The most important thing to say about “Furiosa,” however, is that what it all adds up to is a movie that can be darkly bedazzling, and that will be embraced and defended in a dozen passionate ways — but it’s one that, to me, falls very short of being a “Mad Max” home run. And here’s the thing: I’d be lying if I denied that a “Mad Max” home run is what I was craving. In “Furiosa,” George Miller invests himself so heavily in the “Mad Max” mythology that he competes with it, tops it, and tears it apart at the same time. I’m tempted to rechristen the movie “Mad Miller: Beyond Asunder Dome.”

Some of us — a lot of us — have a special feeling about the “Mad Max” films. We think they’re the greatest thing ever. In the early ’80s, when I became obsessed with them (and when there were just two of them), I would go back to see them again and again, always on the big screen, and I would play a film-critic game with myself called “Which ‘Mad Max’ film is greater than the other?” Was it “Mad Max” (1979), Miller’s original camera-mounted-at-bumper-level epiphany of a drive-in-movie biker film, starring Mel Gibson in black leather as a family man who goes up against the Toecutter, who was like a psychotic Hell’s Angel scripted by Shakespeare? Or was it “The Road Warrior,” Miller’s 1982 sequel, which transplanted the original film’s there-is-no-God-there-is-only-speed jackknife kinetic excitement to a future wasteland overrun by baroque psychos?

Most people would say “The Road Warrior” is greater. But “Mad Max,” in its cruder low-budget way, had a down-and-dirty B-movie virtuosity. “The Road Warrior” was bigger and grander. I decided — this was part of the fun of the game — that the greatest “Mad Max” film was whichever one you happened to be watching.

A few years later, Miller, perhaps high on his own legend (a syndrome that’s more or less built into being a visionary filmmaker), made “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” (1985), a threequel that had some splendid things in it — Tina Turner, the Thunderdome showdown — but that also turned into an inflated Jungian fairy tale about “saving the children” (a good idea in life, but not so often in movies). It wasn’t a terrible film, yet the series felt cooked, spent, diminished. It seemed as if “Mad Max” and “The Road Warrior” were too bravura in their drive-by nihilism to keep extending. Miller had made the two greatest action films of all time, and he moved on to other things.

But that, of course, wasn’t the end of the story. In a world of recycled IP, “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015), released 30 years later, did the impossible. It revived the series at full intensity, sweeping memories of “Beyond Thunderdome” under its spectacular wreckage, and creating a heroine — Charlize Theron’s hellacious buzzcut Furiosa — who was every bit as full-throttle commanding as Mel Gibson’s Max. True to her name, the film was so fast and furious that your eyeballs had to learn how to watch it, to follow the ballistic micro edits. But when you got onto the wavelength, the black magic of the “Mad Max” world was back. It was an epic desert drag-race miracle, a sequel worthy of the first two films — and, in that sense, maybe the third greatest action film ever made.

So what does one do for an encore to that?

“Furiosa” tells the story of how its title character grows up, how she goes from being an innocent village girl, raised in the Green Place of Many Mothers (where she’s already daring enough to sever the fuel hose on a stranger’s motorcycle), to a kidnapped waif to a resourceful orphan who passes herself off as a boy to a devious hellion who bounces back and forth between dueling postapocalyptic underworld empires: that of the Warlord Dementus (Chris Hemsworth), the long-haired-and-bearded ruler of the Biker Horde that first absconds with her (leading them, Dementus rides in the chopper version of a “Ben-Hur” chariot); and that of Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme), the ancient, gas-masked, white-maned cult leader of the Citadel, the colony of white-faced fighter disciples who Furiosa was trying to escape from in “Fury Road.”

One of the many things to cherish about “Fury Road” is that, for all its crash-and-burn splendor and dizzying editing, it channeled the exploitation-film DNA of the original “Mad Max” films. It was a vision of the future (and of the rise of women), but like those first two films it found its meaning in action. That was its gritty glory.

“Furiosa,” by contrast, is a picaresque with a stop-and-go rhythm, as the young Furiosa goes from the frying pan into the fire, like a heavy-metal Candide, forming attachments through her survival instincts but never sticking with anyone for long. She’s a lone wolf in a world of scoundrels. Theoretically, that’s easy to understand, but a movie, almost by nature, needs to be about the forging of bonds. And “Furiosa,” as populated as it is with disposable warriors (and characters with names like Scrotus and Toe Jam and The Octoboss and The People Eater and War Boy), feels alienated and a touch impersonal. The film seems more invested in Miller’s elaborate and, at moments, overly digitized extensions of the Wasteland than in the people who inhabit it. In that way, it’s got a touch of Marvel-itis.

The film seems all but designed to show off its world’s-end locations — the Citadel, the skull-faced cliff we already know well, and Gas Town, a petrochemical jungle surrounded by a giant moat, and the Bullet Farm. There’s one spectacular action sequence. It’s plunked into the center of the movie, and it involves a gleaming silver two-section tanker, with a jagged whirring read-end doohicky, the entire thing built out of spare parts, as it speeds along the desert blacktop with rogue bikers attacking it from all sides. We’ve been here before, but it’s sensationally gratifying to be here again: in the unholy thick of speed and murder, with warriors now dying by incineration.

Yet it’s never a good sign, at least in a “Mad Max” movie, when your most dazzling set piece comes in the middle. “Furiosa,” like “Beyond Thunderdome,” wants to be something loftier than an action blowout, but the movie is naggingly episodic, and though it’s got two indomitable villains, neither one quite becomes the delirious badass you want.

When the young Furiosa, played by Alyla Browne, is first captured, we think horrible things are going to happen to her. She is zoomed across the nighttime desert, where the gnarly biker who nabbed her plans to inform Dementus of the oasis she came from (which, in the Garden of Eden opening sequence, looks civilized enough to be the Whole Foods of the apocalyptic afterworld). But then Furiosa’s mother shows up to rescue her — a ruthless warrior named Mary Jo Bassa (Charlee Fraser) who knows how to repair and ride a Thunder Bike and is willing to die to protect her cub.

Dementus has lost his own family (he still carries his daughter’s Teddy bear), and that’s part of why he forms a sentimental attachment to Furiosa. She will be his family. But I’d be happier with this attempt to “humanize” a “Mad Max” villain if the character were allowed to be wilder. Chris Hemsworth still looks like a surfer-god hero, and his Dementus never quite lives up to his name. He’s not charismatically crazy, just madly imperious. He steals Furiosa’s childhood, yet the “Beyond Revenge” face-off at the end still feels like much ado about not enough.

Then too, there’s something a bit off about how the movie comes close to cushioning the evil of Immortan Joe. This is a ruler who presides over a sick sect of suicide killers, and who extends his royal line by maintaining a harem of sex-slave wives. We know all this from “Fury Road,” of course. But since Immortan Joe’s Citadel is the place Furiosa is destined to end up, the film goes a little easy on it. Immortan Joe and Dementus cut a deal over gasoline, and given how dastardly both of them are supposed to be, the battle between them should have been more lavishly twisted.

The scenes where Furiosa passes herself off as a boy aren’t quite convincing; you have to just go with them. Then she grows up, and Anya Taylor-Joy takes over the role. She’s a powerful actor with a sensual scowl, but here, with hardly any words to speak, she’s at her most stoic. That seems on some level appropriate, especially when she propels herself through an entire road chase underneath a vehicle. But the character is more reactive and less hellbent than either Gibson’s Max or Theron’s Furiosa. For a while, Taylor-Joy’s Furiosa forms a connection with Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke), a road warrior whose main lesson to her seems to be to wear blue greasepaint on their foreheads. Their partnership comes out of nowhere, then fades into nowhere.

More crucial: As much as I loved the character of Furiosa in “Fury Road,” do we really need to see her tangled, deep-dive-that-somehow-stays-on-the-surface origin story? It’s an impulse, at heart, that grows out of franchise culture, and maybe that’s why “Furiosa,” for all the tasty stuff in it, is a half-satisfying movie. Miller creates a volatile world to wander around in, and I suspect a number of viewers and critics will respond fully to that. But part of the genius of the “Mad Max” films is that when they’re pumping on all cylinders, even when they’re as grand as “The Road Warrior” and “Fury Road,” they are also, in spirit, as lean and mean as one of those lethal spiked jalopies zooming down the blacktop. In attempting to inflate his universe into something larger, Miller clutters it with pretension and makes it mean less. He takes his eye off the place where the rubber meets the road.

From Variety US