How the hell did we get here?

It’s baffling enough that Mad Max became a $100 million-dollar international hit on a budget of $400,000 Australian dollars — the highest gross-to-budget ratio in cinema history up until The Blair Witch Project — back in 1979. It’s weird how Mad Max grew into a cult favorite franchise with practically zero continuity between entries. Though perhaps the episodic nature of the series made it easier for audiences to jump on with Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior and make the film Mel Gibson’s breakout hit. Gibson went on to his first million-dollar payday with the third entry in 1985, which grossed about as well as the second entry even though it cost twice as much.

By all appearances, this was a dead franchise. But we’re living in late-stage capitalism, when franchises are not allowed to die. So it was that thirty freaking years later, we got Mad Max: Fury Road, with a reported budget somewhere north of $154 million. To put that into perspective, I crunched the numbers — converting Australian dollars into USD and adjusting for inflation to 2015, the original Mad Max trilogy cost roughly $34.3 million combined.

The budget was astronomically bigger than anything seen in the franchise to date, the aging washed-up Mel Gibson had been swapped out for Tom Hardy, and the film kept up the tradition of no continuity whatsoever. And the end result was a world-conquering, Oscar-winning smash hit, racking up critical praise and box office dollars like crazy. Yet it still didn’t come anywhere near the top ten highest-grossing films of 2015. Go figure.

Regardless, the numbers meant a sequel was inevitable. Based on prior history, I’m sure George Miller and the franchise faithful would’ve preferred another standalone entry with no prior connection to the previous films. But the franchise is now firmly in the mainstream, and the mainstream demands serialized storytelling. As a compromise, here’s Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, a prequel that focuses on the female lead from Fury Road while Max himself is limited to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo (with a body double standing in for Tom Hardy).

Oh, and did I mention that Fury Road was back in 2015? Yeah, we didn’t get this sequel until nearly ten years later. I know COVID was a factor, but still.

Alas, CGI de-aging tech wasn’t up to George Miller’s standards, and it’s anyone’s guess as to whether Charlize Theron would’ve come back even if it was. Thus we have the meteoric up-and-comer Anya Taylor-Joy stepping in to play a younger version of Furiosa. We’ve also got Chris Hemsworth in a rare villainous turn, and Lachy Hulme picking up Immortan Joe from the late Hugh Keays-Byrne.

And what did we get for all that? Well, we got another in a long line of 150-minute blockbuster epics trying to be as much as possible all at once.

The plot follows Furiosa over fifteen years, wrapping up pretty much exactly where Fury Road begins. And there’s so much going on that Anya Taylor-Joy doesn’t show up until an hour in — up until that point, the title character is played as a child by Alyla Browne. It’s tough to make so many long stories short, but we’ll come back to that point.

The plot more or less boils down to a power struggle between two warlords of the post-apocalyptic wasteland. On one side is Immortan Joe, the tyrant we already know from Fury Road. On the other side is Lord Dementus (Hemsworth), who’s… well, he’s effectively the same as Immortan in every way that matters except for power. Thus Dementus spends the whole movie trying to climb up the ladder, dealing with Immortan until he’s strong enough to take the king head-on.

And where does Furiosa fit into all this? Well, you may recall from Fury Road that Furiosa grew up in a lush green oasis until she was kidnapped. Turns out it was Dementus who kidnapped her, right before torturing and killing Furiosa’s mother (Mary, played by Charlee Fraser) right in front of her. Thus Furiosa spends the film bouncing in between the two sides, eventually coming up under Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke), the mentor/proto-Furiosa who teaches our protagonist how to become as she was in Fury Road.

Before going any further, I want to give due praise. All the classic Mad Max staples are here, and properly elevated to Fury Road levels. We’ve got the outlandish cars. We’ve got the over-the-top characters. We’ve got the chase scenes and fight scenes that burn through gasoline like it’s the opposite of the world’s most precious commodity.

The actors are all great fun to watch, but of course the MVPs are Taylor-Joy, Browne, and Hemsworth. As one of the rare few who remember Hemsworth’s failed attempt playing a charismatic cult leader in Bad Times at the El Royale, I was astounded to see how well he pulled it off here. I’m sure that between the elevated setting and the outrageously fake prosthetic nose, Hemsworth had more license to go bigger and broader.

(Side note: Keep an eye out for Elsa Pataky — Hemsworth’s wife was obligingly given two minor supporting roles, one under heavy makeup.)

As for our two lead actors, I totally believe that Taylor-Joy got put through the wringer for this. If she and Browne wanted to take a couple years off to put themselves back together, I’d say they more than earned a good long break. Their performances here are more than dynamic and forceful enough to be on par with Theron’s performance in Fury Road, and that’s saying a lot.

But then we come to the issues with the script and plot.

This movie wants to be a fifteen-year epic that opens up the world of Fury Road through a tale of wars and politics and power struggles. This demands complexity. Trouble is, it also wants to be a Mad Max movie and it wants to be a revenge story. Both of which demand simplicity.

By necessity, a revenge story has to be blood simple: It’s about a protagonist obsessed with killing a bad guy for a clearly and quickly understandable reason. Furthermore, a Mad Max story is aggressively simple. In every single movie, we know that Max is the good guy, we know he’s up against the bad guy, and we know Max is merely doing whatever it takes to survive.

All of this simplicity gets thrown into chaos with Furiosa as our protagonist. Here we have a main character who wants to get back home when she isn’t trying to kill Dementus, or when she isn’t doing something to advance her standing with Immortan or Joe, or when she isn’t trying to rescue Praetorian Jack… the list goes on. There’s so much going on with this movie that it isn’t always clear what Furiosa is doing or why. There are so many times when should easily go after one objective, but then she chooses a tougher — and arguably lesser — objective instead.

Put it this way: If I’m watching a revenge movie or a Mad Max movie, I should never have to ask who is fighting whom or why. I should never find myself thinking that the stakes are not worth all the time and effort being put into this one particular action sequence. And it happened quite a few times in this picture.

Then again, it bears remembering that motivations have always been rather slippery with this franchise. The internal logic is so inconsistent that in every movie, the characters will try to gain an ounce of resources for every pound they spend getting it. This has always been a franchise made of, by, and for thrill-seekers and the spectacle has always been the point. At least Dementus has the good sense to recognize the point and explicitly say as much, and I respect that.

Speaking of which, it was rather unsettling to see this movie lead directly into the 2015 entry. Furiosa puts a great emphasis on Furiosa’s grudge with Dementus, to the point where she doesn’t seem to have much of any beef with Immortan Joe. Compare that to Fury Road, in which Furiosa goes to war against Immortan Joe and Dementus is never even mentioned. Considering how one movie leads directly into the other with literally no time in between, I found the switch to be quite jarring. The prequel could’ve done a lot more to set up what comes next, connecting the dots to smooth out how the characters got from here to there.

Overall, I had a fun time with Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, even as bloated and unwieldy as it is. Anya Taylor-Joy cements her place in the franchise roster of badass heroes, and Chris Hemsworth has finally proven he can play a villain who’s fun to hate. Yes, the action scenes are excessive, but that’s the point of this whole damn franchise. The excess in this film is glorious from start to finish.

What I can’t get over is all the screen time spent making the story more complicated without making it more enjoyable. It sucks that the more I know about Furiosa (who barely talks through most of the film, which certainly doesn’t help), the less I can figure out about her methods and motivations. Moreover, while I can appreciate all the effort put into world-building, I have a difficult time getting invested in the setting of a franchise so tonally and historically inconsistent as the goddamn Mad Max series.

All told — as with all the other movies in the franchise — it’s probably best to enjoy Furiosa as its own standalone movie and not as part of a greater series. On those grounds, I can give this a recommendation.


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