Furiosa (3 ½ stars out of 4)

As I approached the end of “Furiosa’s” two and a half hour run time, I recalled one of the few complaints about 2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road,” that it was little more than a 120-minute there-and-back road chase. In some ways, George Miller’s fifth entry into the “Mad Max” universe feels like a direct answer to that criticism, but fortunately it has a lot more to offer than its complex plot.

“Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” is a prequel to “Fury Road,” and a parallel story to earlier efforts like 1981’s “The Road Warrior” and 1985’s “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” if you choose to put the “Mad Max” films on a common timeline. (Many see the movies as a loose collection of folk tales, which certainly makes it easier to wrestle with questions of canon.)

The film acts as an origin story to “Fury Road’s” standout character, the hardened truck driver who sets out to liberate a group of captives from a post-apocalyptic warlord. Played by Charlize Theron, Furiosa was so central to Miller’s film that it seemed Tom Hardy’s Max was only a supporting player in his own movie.

The beginning of “Furiosa” shuffles a number of parts into place. The story opens in the title character’s childhood, well into the Mad Max apocalypse. While venturing too far from her oasis home, young Furiosa (Alyla Browne) is abducted by a group of bikers and whisked across the desert with her desperate mother (Charlee Fraser) in pursuit. The gang’s leader, Dementus (a comically nasal-voiced Chris Hemsworth), kills her mother and takes Furiosa into his protection. But when Dementus tries to take on another warlord named Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme), Furiosa jumps ship to her future “Fury Road” adversary, hoping to take vengeance on her mother’s killer and eventually get back home.

From there the bulk of the 148-minute saga follows two concurrent threads, and we watch Furiosa rise in Joe’s ranks—only narrowly avoiding a place among his chosen wives—as the conflict between the local warlords escalates. After a certain point, Anya Taylor-Joy takes over the role, and the conflict boils over into spectacular warfare.

One of “Fury Road’s” most compelling strengths was its visual world-building, combining striking color and imagery with eye-popping practical stunt work. Happy to say, “Furiosa” keeps that effort going. “The Road Warrior” laid the foundation for a gas-powered desert apocalypse, and with these last two films Miller has managed to fully realize that vision, using CGI elements to complement that world rather than overpower it.

The extra character development also helps give the film depth and emotional weight, and both Browne and Taylor-Joy bring a proper intensity to the Furiosa character. For his part, Hemsworth’s hammy performance as Dementus stays true to the Mad Max tradition of offering villains that walk a fine line between merciless evil and winking camp. (Another Mad Max tradition? Spectacular character names like History Man, Scrotus, and Toe Jam.)

Ultimately, “Furiosa” will be judged in comparison to its predecessor, and on first impressions, the new film feels like a worthy entry in the series, even if it isn’t adding anything new cinematically. And this is where the comparison may not be fair. “Fury Road” felt like a revelation, a visually-staggering statement of apocalyptic mayhem, the master returning to show the newbies how it’s done. “Furiosa” is good, and a rich story, but in a lot of ways it feels like more of what we’ve seen before instead of something new and dramatic on its own.

Will that matter? Maybe not. An extra dose of “Fury Road” is miles ahead of 95% of anything else available on the big screen in 2024. Even if it’s a little long, “Furiosa” is an engaging story and a rush of fantastic spectacle that leaves you with the feeling that no one on Miller’s team is holding back. And if nothing else, it will show “Mad Max” fans that this desert well has plenty more to offer.

“Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” is rated R for considerable mayhem and action violence, as well as some disturbing imagery.

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