Thursday, May 30, 2024

Movie Review: Furiosa - A Mad Max Saga


George Miller has done the near-impossible.  In making a prequel to the acclaimed Mad Max: Fury Road, he has given that film - essentially a two-hour chase sequence - more weight, more depth, and more pathos.  And maybe more incredibly he's done so with an even better film.  Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga is the Kill Bill vol. 2 to Fury Road's Kill Bill vol. 1.  Where the respective first halves of these cinematic double albums were wall-to-wall action, the second halves lend the carnage meaning, flesh out the world-building, and most importantly explore the characters and what brought them here.  Coincidentally (or maybe not) this film is even separated into five chapters a la Quentin Tarantino.
Spanning over fifteen years, Furiosa introduces the title character as a child and we spend a surprisingly long time getting to know her at this age, after she's kidnapped from the Green Place (the home she spent most of Fury Road returning to) by ruthless warlord/cult leader Dementus.  This shaggy-haired, curly-moustachioed psychopath is brought to life by an almost unrecognizable Chris Hemsworth, who steals the show in a jaunty, often comedic performance that at times seems to channel Heath Ledger's Joker.  Hemsworth wears a false nose and teeth, and raises his natural baritone bellow in timbre so his native Australian accent takes on a nasal, trumpety quality.  The results are superb; we simultaneously fear Dementus's sadism and lack of regard even for the lives of his men, and pity him because he's actually a quite incompetent leader.  This is the best Mad Max villain since The Road Warrior's Wez.

But I digress.  Furiosa endures years and years of cruel tutelage, first under Dementus and later under the film's other main villain, to whom we've already been introduced, Immortan Joe (originally portrayed by the late Hugh Keays-Byrne, now by Lachy Hulme).  As she comes of age she proves herself invaluable as the apprentice of Praetorian Jack, driver of the War Rig that exchanges food and water from Joe's Citadel for ammunition from the Bullet Farm, and fuel from Gastown.  But unlike in Fury Road we actually get to see the other two fortresses, as well as the callous wartime politics and predatory capitalism that plague this eroding pocket of civilization.  

Furiosa herself is played by two actors, Alyla Browne for the first hour (in a very capable performance) and Anya-Taylor Joy thereafter - the film cleverly blurs the changeover by digitally altering Browne's features to resemble Joy's, and I actually had a hard time spotting when the latter took over.  Joy proves an excellent surrogate for Charlize Theron here, adopting the same taciturn but hopelessly resentful tone for the character, made all the more poignant now because we're shown why she is driven by hate and vengeance.  

Evidently when George Miller and Nico Lathouris were crafting the Fury Road script (which they intended to shoot back-to-back with this film) they also invented backstories for everyone, and Charlize Theron used that information to inform her Fury Road performance.  The result is a film that unlike so many fan service-driven prequels, feels organic and earned, an origin story that makes us care.

As for the signature Mad Max action, where the chases in Fury Road were made as big as possible, the action here feels more personal, more story-driven.  Each set piece has some effect on Furiosa's character arc and therefore resonates much more deeply.  The film itself is larger in scope than Fury Road but the action feels smaller and more focused.  And in between chases the movie takes its time; there are very welcome moments of quiet that for me were largely missing from Fury Road.  

My only gripe with Furiosa is that it relies more on digital effects than its predecessor did.  There were plenty of digital backgrounds and landscapes in Fury Road, but the effects were used to enhance what was shot practically, where in Furiosa there are definitely some moments that look computer-rendered from whole cloth, as it were.  But that's a nitpick; this film is visually dazzling like Fury Road, with much more personal drama to sink your teeth into, and an incredibly satisfying resolution that's almost shocking in its intimacy, a throwback of sorts to the original Mad Max.

George Miller has taken his visionary Mad Max soft reboot from 2015 and given us a whole world behind it that not only stands on its own but actually improves the earlier film.  Furiosa is an amazing achievement.

I give the film **** out of ****.

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