Image: courtesy of Warner Bros.

LIKE MOST MOVIEGOERS, I walked into 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road curious to see what kind of freaky topspin Tom Hardy would put on Mel Gibson’s iconic postapocalyptic avenger. And like most moviegoers, I walked out thinking more about Hardy’s costar, Charlize Theron, and her ferocious turn as the film’s one-armed action Valkyrie, Furiosa. Tom who?

This was scene-stealing on a felony level. Theron gave us a buzzcut-sporting badass who turned out to be not only madder than Max but also a lot more interesting and mysterious. Who was this Imperator Furiosa? Where did she come from? How did she lose that arm? We had so many questions. It turns out that George Miller was listening. Because in the daredevil director’s fifth and latest installment in his future-shock franchise, Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, he eighty-sixes Max Rockatansky all together and devotes 148 mostly thrilling, occasionally meandering minutes to fleshing out the origin story of cinema’s greatest action heroine since Ellen Ripley.

The biggest question swirling around Miller’s new Fury Road prequel is whether a side character like Furiosa (now played by Anya Taylor-Joy) warrants such an elaborate degree of myth-building. The answer is yes…and no. Furiosa opens with our heroine as a young girl (played by Alyla Brown) hiding out with a small band of female survivors in an oasis called the Green Place of Many Mothers. Surrounded on all sides by the unforgiving desert, this Edenic paradise, where metaphorical peaches grow on trees, is a safe haven from the grimy, heavy-metal marauders who prowl the wasteland on their jerry-rigged machines of doom. Then, one day, little Furiosa is kidnapped by a dim group of leather-clad goons, violently tied to the back of a motorcycle, and whisked across the dunes to the outpost of a gonzo warlord named Dementus.

Cartoonishly played by Chris Hemsworth with a distracting putty schnoz, prosthetic buck teeth, and a hornet’s nest of tangled Whisky-a-Go-Go hair, Dementus eyes the young girl with the sort of bad intentions that instantly make you squirm in your seat. He comes off as a cross between Val Kilmer’s Jim Morrison and Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack. Meanwhile, Furiosa’s mother (Charlee Fraser) gives chase, but it’s no use. Furiosa is now Dementus’s property, and he’s taken a shine to her. But apparently not enough of a shine to prevent her from being sold off to the Skeletor-masked Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme) in exchange for a chance to run Gas Town – a desert refinery surrounded by a moat of crude oil.

Fans of Fury Road will immediately make the connection that Furiosa’s new home at Immortan Joe’s Citadel is the same place she escaped from in the previous film. And so the narrative puzzle pieces start snapping into place, forming a larger picture. But whereas Fury Road was essentially constructed as a two-hour high-speed Rube Goldberg chase goosed by some of the hairiest practical stunts ever put on film, Furiosa spends large chunks of time mapping out the franchise’s various players, power struggles, and points on the compass. This is all interesting enough in a map-of-Narnia sort of way, but you can’t help wishing that Miller spent less time on world-building and more on his gonzo demolition-derby mayhem. That said, when the high-speed volleys of action do break out, they’re as awesomely bonkers as you could possibly want. I just wish the portions were bigger.

Rogue Director
Image: courtesy of Warner Bros.

Furiosa is at its best when it gives in to the thrill.

At the Citadel, Furiosa is put in a women-only VIP area where Immortan Joe’s hand-picked harem of childbearing wives keeps the population humming with disposable war boys. But she wants no part of that. And after one of Immortan Joe’s creepy, inbred sons starts to come on to her, young Furiosa hightails it and passes herself off as a waif-like boy who’s just another expendable cog in Immortan Joe’s combat machine. As Furiosa ages up into Anya Taylor-Joy, her resourcefulness and “purposeful savagery” quickly make her invaluable. Soon she’s riding shotgun with Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke), a swaggering rig driver whose strong, silent brand of stoic heroism makes it seem like he just sidled in from a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western.

It’s here, behind the wheel, that Furiosa finally comes to life. Myth-building is fine, but high-speed pyrotechnics are what we came for. And Miller, after what feels like an hour of narrative throat-clearing, slams his foot on the gas. These spasms of overcaffeinated kamikaze mayhem are thrilling in their without-a-net danger. But the director’s white-knuckle action sequences, dizzying camerawork (the man loves a zoom close-up), and Ginsu editing are such cathartic fun that you want more the second that they’re over. Fury Road was so wall-to-wall with breathtaking thrills and spills that you never had a chance to pause and think about just how thin Miller’s universe actually was. By taking his foot off the gas pedal for long stretches in Furiosa, that thinness become too obvious.

Following in Theron’s footsteps was never going to be an easy assignment for any actress. But Taylor-Joy, someone I wouldn’t have necessarily pictured in the part based on her previous credits (The Queen’s GambitLast Night in Soho), is surprisingly good. Her voice, especially when she at long last gets the chance to dish out vengeance, is unexpectedly deep and forceful. Her wide-set anime eyes are their own kind of weapon, simmering with fiery rage. And she moves through the film’s most demanding physical stunts with a liquid balletic grace. I wish I could say the same for Hemsworth, but his Dementus is so silly and broad and over-the-top that it feels like he’s broadcasting on a completely different frequency. Still, his chopper chariot is motorhead catnip.

In a way, it seems churlish and unfair to weigh Furiosa too closely against Fury Road, but really, what else are we supposed to do? While Miller’s new movie has a handful of bravura action scenes, it also has too many others just sitting there, idling in neutral, when all we want to do is get back behind the wheel and punch the clutch. The question now is: Where do Miller and Max go from here? Are there more Furiosa tales left to tell? Maybe, but I sort of doubt it. Does the franchise return its focus to Max? I don’t see that, either. What about origin stories for Praetorian Jack or Immortan Joe? I think Furiosa is proof we don’t need more backstories. Miller has given us a hell of a ride over the past forty-five years. He has pushed the limits of what action movies are and what they can be. But I’m not sure there’s much gas left in Mad Max’s tank.

This story originally appeared on Esquire US.


Ranking every single one of Chris Hemsworth’s 27 films

Cannes film festival 2024: Which movies will we be arguing about this year?