Producers: George Miller and Doug Mitchell   Director: George Miller   Screenplay: George Miller and Nico Lathouris   Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Burke, Alyla Browne, Charlee Fraser, Lachy Hulme, Angus Sampson, Nathan Jones, Josh Helman, John Howard, George Shevtsov, David Field, Goran Kleut and Quayden Bayles   Distributor: Warner Bros.

Grade: B

Imperator Furiosa—her name, like so many in George Miller’s long-running “Mad Max” franchise, which stretches back to 1979, has the Latinate ring of imperial Rome to it (a quality it shares with the “Planet of the Apes” pictures)—was introduced in the fourth installment of the series, 2015’s “Fury Road.”  As played by Charlize Theron she was a kick-ass female warrior fleeing the Citadel, domain of the powerful warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), and taking his harem of wives with her.  Their intended destination: her childhood home, a realm of peace and plenty called the Green Place, a hidden oasis in a war-torn post-apocalypse desert world. The pursuit of the women by Joe and his army was the entirety of “Road,” with Max (Tom Hardy), another captive of the ruler, escaping and becoming Furiosa’s reluctant confederate.

Max himself is absent from the new film, a prequel recounting Furiosa’s life up to the point where “Fury” began.  Divided into a series of chronological chapters, it starts with young Furiosa (Alyla Browne) being kidnapped from her idyllic homeland by a bunch of motorcycle-riding thugs who are part of the horde of a flamboyant prophet-warlord called Dementus (Chris Hemsworth, hamming it up with unbridled glee), who leads his rampaging forces aboard a chariot pulled by three cycles.

Furiosa’s mother Mary Jabassa (Charlee Fraser), chasing the raiding party first by horse and then by commandeered cycle both to save her daughter and keep the location of the Green Place secret, and a crack shot to boot, eliminates all the riders save for Toe Jam (David Field), who delivers the girl to Dementus before being offed by Mary.  But Dementus’ men are able to take both of them prisoner; he kills the mother before her daughter’s eyes, but treats the girl like the daughter he’d lost himself, even giving her a prized possession, a teddy bear.

The rest of the film follows Furiosa’s survival in a testosterone-driven dystopia and her implacable lust for revenge against Dementus, who intends to conquer the great regimes of the desert and combine them under his rule.  But his initial attempt to dislodge Immortan Joe (now played by Lachy Hulme, who also—sans the character’s gas-mask—plays Rizzdale Pell, Demetrius’ hulky lieutenant)—from the Citadel fails.  He turns to Gas Town, the Citadel’s source of fuel, and takes it over with a surprise Trojan Horse-style assault.  Then in negotiations he turns over Furiosa to Joe, who intends to use the virginal girl as a breeder—his existing sons, the hulking Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones) and the reckless Scrotus (Josh Helman) both being defective either physically or emotionally.  But escaping Rictus’ unwanted advances, she cuts her hair, pretends to be a boy, and grows into a strong, if mute, warrior, now played (after a full forty minutes or so) by Anya Taylor-Joy.

Eventually she attempts to escape by crawling into the undercarriage of one of the huge transport rigs driven by legendary road warrior Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke), demonstrating to him her remarkable prowess when the truck is attacked by a bevy of Dementus’ riders.  Recognizing her talent, Jack invites her to become his co-pilot, and though the movie doesn’t bother depicting her training, they develop into a seasoned pair.  Unfortunately, Dementus’ ambitions rise up again, and when Joe assigns them to drive to the Bullet Farm to stock up on weaponry, Dementus ambushes them and, following a tense battle, captures them after a frantic chase; his treatment of Jack gives Furiosa, deprived of an arm, a new reason to seek revenge against the warlord.

The opportunity comes with a plan by Joe to mislead Dementus into attempting an assault on the Citadel believing its defenders have left for Gastown; the defeated warlord flees into the desert with Furiosa in hot pursuit, and the result of their confrontation, as reported in narration by one of the “history men” who maintain memories of such matters, has taken several forms, the most gruesome of them—one with another variant of a classical punishment—being the preferred version.  In an end-credits montage, viewers are reminded how the outcome leads to the events of “Fury Road.”

“Furiosa” proves once again that even in his late seventies Miller is an absolute master of mise-en-scène, contriving, with production designer Colin Gibson, cinematographer Simon Duggan, costumer Jenny Beavan and editors Eliot Knapmann and Margaret Sixel (as well as visual effects supervisor Andrew Jackson, action designer Guy Norris and the entire stunt crew) action sequences of astonishing impact.  (The throbbing score by Tom Holkenborg adds to the effect.)   Even elsewhere, the individual widescreen images—of vast desert horizons, huge cliffs, imposing structures—have a painterly quality, as in the final shot of Dementus in pain.  There are some points where topographical coherence gets a bit muddy, as in the working out of Joe’s final defeat of Dementus.  But the overall effect is simply staggering.

In human terms there’s less to admire.  Dementus is a cunningly cruel, over-the-top villain, and Hemsworth catches the manic vibe, even if it seems more calculated than instinctive. There’s ghoulish enjoyment to be had in some of the supporting characters—Jones’s bruiser Rictus, Helman’s quick-tempered Scrotus, John Howard’s officious People Eater, Quaden Bayles’s diminutive, pathetic war boy—and George Shevtsov is creepily emaciated as Dementus’ History Man, who serves not only as a source of information but, as needed, as a dictionary-translator.  Fraser’s Jabassa is like a wonder woman of the desert; her military skills are formidable but unexplained (is she the community’s chosen protector, or are all the woman similarly trained?)  Less intriguing are others—bearded returnee Angus Sampson as The Organic Mechanic, Goran Kleut’s beefy, masked Octoboss, Hulme’s Pell.  (Nor is he especially fearsome as Joe.)  And Burke’s Praetorian Jack is rather dull; the character’s meant to be stoically impassive, to be sure, but Burke adds zilch to the blankness.

Of the Furiosas, Browne, with her physical dexterity and grim fortitude, might actually come off the stronger of the two, but certainly there’s nothing wrong with Taylor-Joy.  She might lack something of Theron’s bravado, but comes into her own in the final act, when she cuts a striking figure as Dementus’ nemesis. 

The film also benefits from the dark notes that Miller and co-writer Nico Lathouris have added to the expected action.  In a telling scene in the final reel, as the People Eater offers a strategy-table explanation of Joe’s battle plan against Dementus, the narrating History Man boils down the history of humanity to a succession of violent conflicts, a message as depressing as anything Kubrick ever proposed.  And though the film must have been finished some time ago, Dementus’ raging about revenge and retribution can’t help but remind viewers of words being employed by a prominent political figure right now.

But even apart from those moments, “Furiosa,” if not equaling the pure adrenaline rush of “Fury Road,” is a spectacular addition to the “Mad Max” canon, even though, as with the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy, you know in advance where it’s headed.  At least Miller doesn’t bungle the job like Lucas did.