Thursday, June 13, 2024

Hard to believe it’s been nearly 10 years since George Miller punched us all in the face with “Fury Road,” his amped-up reenvisioning of the post-apocalyptic “Mad Max” universe. A phenomenal cast and action scenes that arguably topped the original trilogy’s signature episode, “The Road Warrior” (1981), made that spectacle of a lawless world taken over by marauding tribal factions a reboot like no other. “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga,” the new nitro-injected prequel to that 2015 desert storm, is a high-energy affair, to be certain. It doesn’t move the needle, but it is game to try to keep pace.

One of the perverse pleasures of those late 1970 and 1980s films (“Mad Max” and “Beyond Thunderdome” bookending “Road Warrior”) was Miller’s minimal backstory or world building. In voiceover we’re told only that fuel become scarce, nations went to war over it and nukes happened – leaning in on catastrophic climate change before COP 21 was even a glimmer in the U.N.’s eye. Then again, global nuclear warfare pretty much leapfrogs an environmental crisis. 

As always, scarce resources are the crux of conflict in “Furiosa” and the reason for the rise of ’roid-rage tyrants such as the Morlock-ish Immortan Joe or our new dispenser of wasteland sadism, Dr. Dementus (Chris Hemsworth), whose MO is drawing and quartering by motorcycle after a bit of “Squid Game” fun. (This younger Immortan Joe is played by Lachy Hulme, replacing Hugh Keays-Byrne from the 2015 film. Keays-Byrne, also indelible as Toecutter in the original “Mad Max” in 1979, died in 2020.) As we know from “Fury Road,” young, fertile women are worth warring over as well, or more so to be hoarded away in chastity belts with the intent to propagate legacies Genghis Kahn style. 

Miller and his longtime co-scribe Nick Lathouris, had a small part in the 1979 film, do a yeoman’s job of fleshing out the chaotic, dust-choked universe conjured up in “Fury Road.” In this chapter we actually get to go to the Bullet Farm and Gas Town, fortified encampments that loomed across the desert but were never visited or sieged by Immortan Joe’s pasty white phalanx of War Boys. “Furiosa” also becomes the first “Max” flick to play significantly off plot developments from another chapter (though to belie the title, while there is a Max stand-in, there is no one named Max). The film’s five segments begin in the Green Place of Many Mothers where “Fury” essentially ends, as a young Furiosa (Alyla Browne) is kidnapped by the minions of Dementus. Her mother (Charlee Fraser), a hell of a shot with a rifle, follows along in a pursuit. It’s long-simmering scene with the potent poetry of the grueling desert march from “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962). Jumping forward in time, an older Furiosa played by Anya Taylor-Joy (“The Queen’s Gambit,” “The Witch”) has been traded from Dementus to Joe to stave off a war and later, through near-death happenstance, goes incognito in Joe’s mountain cliff complex known as the Citadel. 

Given that what much of what goes down in wasteland has to do with dick waving (I mean, we have characters called Rictus Erectus, Scrotus and Pissboy) and prison-yard, alpha-male domination, the uneasy peace and trade accords with Gas Town and the Bullet Farm begin to fray, with Furiosa and her own agenda in play as war looms. This is also the first “Mad Max” to have hordes of equally matched factions go at it, not the haplessly underarmed and helplessly outnumbered stranded and beset in their own personal “Rio Bravo” (1959). And despite the outwardly mean, masculine veneer, like “Fury Road,” “Furiosa” is decidedly female in its humanist gaze and nurturing of hope for a better tomorrow. 

Taylor-Joy is seamless as the can-do, younger version of what Charlize Theron brought to the screen nine years ago. Equally superb is Browne as the adolescent Furiosa, and not enough can be said about Fraser’s mad mom, who may be the most formidable wasteland warrior of all. Hemsworth tries, but he’s no Lord Humungous, and his bawdy bad-ass retorts have a bit too much “Thor” jokiness to them. The other near miss is Tom Burke (Orson Welles in “Mank”) as Praetorian Jack, a weak-tea distillation of Mel Gibson’s morally ambiguous roamer from the initial films who lacks the harrowed, frying-pan-into-the-fire immediacy of Tom Hardy in the last go-round; a relationship dynamic between Jack and Furiosa that Miller aims for as they ride out into the wasteland in the requisite fortified tanker never really takes hold, because Taylor-Joy’s grease-smeared avenger is so much more fully baked and fire-breathing. 

“Furiosa,” as gorgeous as it is to take in, is long, and Miller and Lathouris unwisely rehash moments from past films (Gyro Captain ultra-lights, a botched Molotov catching fire on the legs of a hapless combatant and the whole “You want to get out of here, you talk to me” swagger line, among the many) as homage, which just weakens them. You can’t fault the film’s furious pacing, jaw-dropping action sequences and dutiful connecting of dots, but is it needed? “Fury Road” was a mic drop; “Furiosa” is a victory lap, the “Silmarillion” of the series. 

At Landmark Kendall Square Cinema, 355 Binney St., Cambridge; Apple Cinemas Cambridge, 168 Alewife Brook Parkway, Cambridge Highlands near Alewife and Fresh Pond; Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square; and AMC Assembly Row 12, 395 Artisan Way, Assembly Square, Somerville.