L Movie Review 2In the late ’70s a young Australian doctor worked overtime in the ER to fund his first film. That filmmaker was George Miller, and the movie he directed was Mad Max. Over the following decade Miller made two more films in the series, including 1981’s The Road Warrior, a towering cinematic feat now considered a classic due to its unprecedented stunts entwining car chases with hurling bodies. As you might know, Miller’s Mad Max series envisions a bleak future, where civilization has been replaced by steampunk maniacs battling for gas, food, and munitions on empty highways. In 2015, Guillermo del Toro stated, “Emotionally … if you told me, ‘The world is ending! Grab a movie!’ I would grab The Road Warrior.” And then, just when we thought Miller had hung up his biker jacket and sawed-off shotgun, he released one of the best films of the franchise: 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, which redefined the modern action epic once again.

Since then, loyal disciples of Miller (this critic included) have been sitting in our rumbling cars, waiting for the grind of corrosive engines, the burn of the Australian sunshine, and choreographed ultra-violence in the Outback. Well, Miller has partially answered our prayers, with a bold and ambitious prequel, Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga. This latest chapter still features outlandish vehicles, leather-clad freaks, and propulsive road battles; it’s also weighed down by a cluttered plot,  uneven tonality, self-conscious dialogue, and an episodic framework straight out of a fantasy novel. As a result, it feels like the movie has an elusive philosophical bent the filmmakers are intent on elucidating. 

With a running time of two hours and twenty-eight minutes, and divided by chapters with lofty titles like “Lessons from the Wasteland,” Furiosa is the origin story of Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron in Fury Road. Anya Taylor Joy picks up the mantle this time, suffusing the bald, one-armed roadster with a quiet, bubbling wrath. Unlike Theron, whose performance was all sweaty determination and grit, Joy takes a more ponderous approach to the character, which makes sense, since it’s essentially a coming-of-age story.

The opening is a brash symphony of contrasting landscapes. We first meet Furiosa in the Green Place of Many Mothers, where she lives with her family in a verdant paradise of trees, ripened fruit, and plentiful water. She’s quickly kidnapped by a horde of marauding bikers whose leader, Warlord Dementus (Chris Hemsworth), operates a chariot led by motorcycles, like a Roman general. Dementus looks like a roadie for Motörhead, with the exception of the decrepit teddy bear clamped to his belt (or his back, depending on his mood). Taking Furiosa under his brawny wing, Dementus can at times be affectionate and amusingly daft. But he’s also an evil bastard, and after he forces her to witness an act of brutality, Furiosa vows retribution.

A post-apocalyptic Attila the Hun, Dementus and his crew pinball between settlements of fellow bandits to pilfer their goods and lay waste to their villages. After unsuccessfully attempting to overthrow the Citadel, the skull-faced desert stronghold ruled by Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme), who you might remember as the gas-masked dictator from Fury Road, the two warlords strike a bargain. In exchange for Furiosa, Immortan Joe gives Dementus one of his neighboring townships. Up to this point, the movie has moved at lightning speed while creating a ruthless, spellbinding world of undulating sand dunes and magical desert nights, beautifully rendered by cinematographer Simon Duggan. But after we get to the Citadel, the story putters and then continually struggles to regain momentum. After Furiosa is taken captive and introduced to Immortan Joe’s cadre of concubines, she shaves her head, disguising herself as a boy to escape a similar fate. These scenes defy logic, but they move so quickly we don’t have time to question them. From there, she meets Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke), a veteran driver who shows her the ropes in the art of road battle. Their union feels like it might deepen into something sublime, but it bursts into dust like a lot of the film’s human elements.

One of the main reasons to see Furiosa is for Chris Hemsworth’s performance, which injects the movie with a madcap energy it so desperately needs. He’s also kept out of the story for way too long, which ultimately weakens Furiosa’s (and the audience’s) thirst for revenge. By the time they face off, it feels a little shrug-worthy. Still, Hemsworth’s cocksure physicality and punch-drunk line delivery practically steals the whole shebang.

But even Hemsworth can’t outshine the sloppy and underwhelming plot. The script, by Miller and Nick Lathouris, consistently struggles to parse the complexities of a world that was already fully formed in Fury Road. Do we really need to know about the political intricacies of the Citadel, and how it shares supplies with neighboring forts with names like “Bullet Farm”? The movie spends a lot of time on these desultory scenarios; most of the action occurs when the Citadel’s truck is attacked by bandits as it transports goods. Still, there’s a particularly fantastic, crushing sequence, strangely placed in the middle of the film, that’s reminiscent of The Road Warrior.

Despite such moments of visual splendor, you can’t help but feel disenchanted. Where’s the emotional urgency in trucks delivering cabbage and gas between fortresses? There’s a persistent feeling that Miller has been inspired by Marvel or DC, since he invests more time in empty, intricate world-building than in keeping the story lean and frenzied, as he did in his past films. Tonally, the result feels intermittently awkward, as if Led Zeppelin were taking cues from a boy band and lowering itself to contemporary paradigms. We also never get to know Furiosa, not intuitively. Although Taylor-Joy fills the gaps with poignant glances and a broken gait, her character is thinly conceived. In Fury Road, we were invested in Furiosa’s journey, we yearned for her survival. This time she comes off as more tour guide than heroine.

And yet, with all its stumbling blocks (which are plentiful), Furiosa is still a road trip worth taking. Like the equally flawed Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Miller’s grand aesthetic somehow overshadows the pretension we’re forced to sift through like a clutter of engine parts in a garage. Ultimately, there are just enough cool set pieces, enthralling action sequences, and moments of cruel humor to help us build a vehicle that might be a little clunky but will still get us to a post-apocalyptic nirvana. It’s milquetoast compared to The Road Warrior and Fury Road, but Miller’s brand of Wonder Bread is still pretty delicious. ❖

Chad Byrnes has been a film critic for the L.A. Weekly and the Village Voice for five years. He lives in Los Angeles.

 

 

 

 

 

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