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The fast and the ‘Furiosa’

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published May 27, 2024 5:00 am

You don’t actually see Anya Taylor-Joy until nearly an hour into Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, but you can already feel her gaze: even the little girl playing her when she’s abducted from the Green Place of Many Mothers (Ayla Browne) has the same fierce, wide-set, determined look: taking it all in, taking it all down.

Taylor-Joy says Furiosa was a difficult, even life-changing, shoot—she had to train herself to use her eyes to register everything, and though her ballet training helped with all the physical stunts, she says it might take “20 years” before she can fully talk about shooting in a Tasmanian desert, going days without speaking to anyone—but it pays off in a second half that fully plays out the origin story of the most interesting co-character in Mad Max annals. We even learn, somewhat poetically, how she came to lose that left arm and what secrets it held.

If any revved-up car chase film ever needed some backstory, it was Fury Road. The 2015 film whizzed by at a killer clip, accompanied by George Miller’s trademark split-second editing, meanwhile inventing a whole new world around it at 90 mph.

Big-eyed Anya Taylor-Joy steers this Mad Max saga as Furiosa.

That world is fleshed out more fully in Furiosa, perhaps a bit too fleshed out (the running time is 2:28). But if you’re a Mad Max addict, this extra material on the Wasteland—actual visits to Gas Town and the Bullet Farm, with all its attendant quirky weirdness—is film geek manna.

Furiosa is taken from her mom by biker warriors led by Dementus (Chris Hemsworth in nose prosthetic and lots of crazy scenery-chewing desert energy), who barters her off to Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme) to gain control over Gas Town. But Dementus is not a gifted leader. Immortan Joe has more staying power, even as he seeks to attach Furiosa to his ever-growing den of Breeders. She’s not having it. By this time, Furiosa has shifted into the adolescent-looking Taylor-Joy, and things get more interesting as she makes herself invaluable in the Citadel, shearing her long locks to pass as a boy and attaching herself to ace War Rig driver Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke). They both adopt the grease-painted-eyes look, all the better to emphasize Furiosa’s smoldering gaze.

Chris Hemsworth brings big Crazy Desert Energy to his warlord Dementus.

The political backstory is every story of power-struggling clans. Miller says of his Mad Max saga, “The future is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed.” He means that these events are already happening around us, but at different rates. There’s always them that’s got, and them that ain’t got, and the dispossessed either fall under the sway of would-be dictators who promise them “retribution” or “redemption” (like certain orange US presidential candidates), or they’re crushed in futile rebellion.

Of course, as we know from Fury Road, Furiosa has another plan, and that’s to get back to the garden of her home, a “place of abundance” that fits into the folkloric storytelling that Miller favors so much. It’s fittingly called a “saga,” because there’s now usually a framing voiceover reflecting on the veracity of this version of events.

Furiosa teams up with Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke) to go on supply runs.

Because Fury Road took place “over three days and two nights,” says Miller, “part of the task was to tell a story in which all the exposition was picked up on the run. In order to do that, we had to know so much about that world.” So there was a lot of world-building that was just tossed out along the roadside in Fury Road. Yet Furiosa’s backstory was already down on paper.

Furiosa is more leisurely paced than Fury Road, because this one wants us to luxuriate in the details. There’s the trademark worship of V8 engines; Furiosa’s fast and furious fingers disassembling motorcycle parts with ease; side characters that fill out the edges of Miller’s screen (seen in IMAX, even more so). The first half is a bit episodic (set off with chapter titles) and only kicks into high-octane gear once Taylor-Joy enters the picture.

Behind the wheel: The chases and action scenes still keep up a kinetic edge in Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga.

And yes, there are some killer action scenes, great chases that expand on, just slightly, the kinetic levels of Fury Road. And there’s ample reflection on the nature of good and evil, and how evil is a vocation all its own. And maybe revenge trumps all other justifications for people’s actions. Certainly in Mad Max movies, anyway.

The focus narrows in the final act to a battle of wills between Dementus, shrewd but also kinda dumb, and the finely honed Taylor-Joy, who may lack Charlize’s physical stature, but commands the screen in her biggest action role yet. Yes, it was great seeing her push chess pieces around with a furious gaze in Queen’s Gambit, but seeing her plot revenge here is a game on another level.

Height differentials aside, the film’s ending dovetails smoothly with the opening of Fury Road. That film was a masterpiece because it took us all by surprise, and took our breath away. We never saw it coming.

It’s harder to muster the same energy in a prequel. It’s kind of like how Breaking Bad grabbed us and never let go. After that, the prequel spinoff, Better Call Saul, could only seem tamer and slower—yet it’s every bit as rich in detail and nuance as the world of Breaking Bad, still delivered by a master storyteller.

Here, the 79-year-old Miller is not exactly slowing down; he just wants us to smell the flowers, along with the roadkill.