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Fury (2014)

1D434B26DIRECTOR: David Ayer

CAST: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Jon Bernthal, Michael Pena

REVIEW:

One of the most intense, gritty, and brutal WWII films since Saving Private Ryan (possibly even surpassing it for graphic bloodshed), and one of the best war films to come along in years, Fury dispels the notion that the Allies’ post D-Day race toward Berlin (a race they lost to the Russians) was any kind of cakewalk.  Leave it to the likes of Patton to show montages of Allied columns roaring triumphantly down roadways as rousing music plays; Fury takes us down to the ground, spending much of the action inside one tank with one small crew slogging their way through Germany.  Of course, that is no criticism of Patton, just that the two films show the war from complete opposite perspectives.  Those who enjoyed (if “enjoyed” is an appropriate word) Saving Private Ryan should appreciate Fury.  In fact, Fury goes even further than Steven Spielberg’s epic in being completely devoid of any flag-waving patriotism or idealism.  This is a war movie that lives up to the saying “war is hell”.  

April 1945: It’s the last days of WWII in Europe, with the Allies now driving into Germany itself amid crumbling but fanatical resistance.  Hitler has declared “total war”, with the Nazi hierarchy throwing every German man, woman, and child into the fight and hanging those who refuse as “cowards”.  In the middle of this dreary slog is a tank crew commanded by battle-hardened Don “War Daddy” Collier (Brad Pitt), Bible-thumping Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), pugnacious Grady Travis (Jon Bernthal), and Mexican immigrant Gordo Garcia (Michael Pena).  These four have been together for most of the war, and despite their differences and occasional infighting, they’re a close-knit team.  But into this comes an outsider: fresh-faced young Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), who to his bewilderment has been pulled out of his job as a clerk and typist and thrown into the tragically vacated seat of the tank’s assistant driver/gunner, which he’s as unenthusiastic about as the others are about having him there.

Fury has a clearly delineated first, second, and third act.  The first establishes the setting and characters, along with supplying some battle scenes.  Then there is a lengthy interlude in a conquered town with Don and Norman spending a little time with two German women.  In the third act, the climax kicks into gear, as our crew joins a tank convoy racing to intercept a German army and hold a crossroads position to keep the German counterattack from destroying a supply train.  The most thrilling battle scene, which comes before the climax, features a massive, more advanced German Tiger tank holding its own against three smaller and less powerful American foes, which comes down to a one-on-one contest of skill between Don and his mostly unseen German counterpart.  Both men obviously know what they’re doing, and while we catch only fleeting glimpses of the German enemy, this smaller-scale contest generates more intensity than large battle sequences (as good as they are).  The final battle’s set-up, with our crew fighting a desperate battle to hold a position against overwhelming German forces, and the way our story wraps itself up, is vaguely reminiscent of the climax of Saving Private Ryan, and it keeps us on the edge of our seat, uncertain if anyone is going to make it out alive.  The tone is bleak and grim enough that we never feel any character is above being killed off, abruptly and without warning.  After war films as brutally graphic as Saving Private Ryan, among others, it genuinely surprised me that on a couple occasions, Fury was actually graphic enough to startle me and make an impact (a rare occasion in this age of desensitized violence)…the torn piece of a human face Norman finds while cleaning the tank made a gruesome impression.  Director David Ayer makes the filth of mud and sometimes blood caking everything palpable, making us feel as close to being immersed in the environment as any movie is capable of bringing us.  Everyone looks constantly filthy, and most people we see have battle scars.  Also, Fury is completely uninterested in any flag-waving “why we fight” patriotic message (something even Saving Private Ryan indulged in a little of, heavy-handedly enough to slightly weaken itself).  In fact, one could argue its portrayal of the central tank crew is not especially flattering.  They’re not portrayed negatively, but also not whitewashed, and especially in the case of Jon Bernthal’s Grady, we see how the war has worn away at their morality and maybe their sanity.  The dynamic among the tankers is sometimes fractious, and while Don does some questionable things, he might be a better man than his crewmates.  At the same time, when their backs are up against the wall, they’re together to the end.  The inexperienced gentle-hearted newbie, Norman, who’s never even seen the inside of a tank before, starts out fumbling and terrified, but the next few days will provide his baptism by fire.  There are moments of disturbing moral ambiguity, such as when Don forces Norman to execute a surrendered SS prisoner.  The comparatively sedate interlude with the German women halfway through also makes us uneasy.  From the moment Don enters their apartment and locks the door, we’re uncertain what’s going to happen.  While Don is our “hero”, more or less (though anti-hero might be more accurate), and we’d like to think he wouldn’t stoop so low as to take part in rape, Fury has generated enough moral ambiguity by this point that we can’t feel completely sure.  Something bad might happen…or it might not…and the uncertainty doesn’t let us relax, even in the most non-violent and peaceful sequence of the movie.  The final battle generates as much nail-biting suspense, tension, and intensity of any battle sequence in any war film that comes to mind.

In general, I am not a particular fan of Brad Pitt, but Pitt, his face and body nicked with scars, effectively sinks into the skin of his character (something he hasn’t always managed with other roles).  Pitt is more-or-less playing a less over-the-top variation of his character from Inglourious Basterds; a grizzled, battle-hardened hardass whose only concerns are killing Nazis and keeping his men alive.  War has ground down his humanity, and especially when it comes to the SS, he’s not interested in taking prisoners.  At the same time, while war has chipped away at his soul, he hasn’t altogether abandoned it to the extent some of his comrades may have done.  Logan Lerman, far removed from Perks of Being a Wallflower, capably fulfills Norman’s transformation as the timid rookie who uncovers a taste for combat.  While Pitt is first-billed, it’s really Lerman’s Norman who is the central figure and gets the fullest character arc.  Shia LaBeouf, whose image as a hot up-and-comer has taken a hit in recent years through a combination of questionable role choices and gaining a reputation for offscreen misbehavior, has a less substantial role, but he shows here, as in 2012’s Lawless, that he’s capable of giving effective dramatic performances.  Michael Pena and former The Walking Dead cast member Jon Bernthal effectively complete the ensemble.  There are smaller roles for an almost unrecognizable Jason Isaacs (sporting facial scars and an American accent), Scott Eastwood, and True Blood‘s Jim Parrack.

Among the many, many American films made about WWII, Fury stands tall as one of the grittiest, most intense, and most completely unromanticized.  It portrays the horrors in war in detail graphic enough to be difficult to watch at moments without completely removing the heroic element (its characters are not whitewashed, nor necessarily even always especially likable, but their courage and loyalty is admirable).  The characters all receive at least adequate development (though the lion’s share of focus is split between Don and Norman) without the pace becoming sluggish.  Like the best parts of Saving Private Ryan, it’s a draining experience, but also a powerful and memorable one that leaves a lasting impression.  Fury is far from “feel good” viewing, but it makes an impact as strong as a tank shell.

* * * 1/2

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