Thursday, October 16, 2014

Review: "Fury"

One of my favorite things to do as a critic is to point people to great movies they’ve probably never heard of. Case in point: “End of Watch,” which was in and out of theaters so fast in 2012 you probably missed it even if you didn’t blink.

Writer/director David Ayer’s next film, the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle “Sabotage,” similarly disappeared without a trace. I’m hoping that won’t be the case with his latest, “Fury,” a World War II action/drama starring Brad Pitt that mostly takes place inside a single Sherman tank.

Fair notice: this a grim, dark movie about the dank corners hidden away inside men’s souls. It makes “Saving Private Ryan” seem like a lullaby.

The battle scenes are gruesome, and what happens when the shooting stops is often even more troubling. American soldiers are portrayed not as decent men who sometimes commit evil deeds in the heat of combat, but killing machines who only want to murder the Germans before the krauts murder them.

What a pitiable world Ayers has drawn for us. Unlike most WWII movies that are set when the Nazis still have the upper hand, here it’s April 1945 and the Germans are offering their stiffest resistance before the collapse they know is inevitable.

The soldiers are all scarred, grimy beasts; the German landscape is an open wound, ripped and gasping; the detritus of war lies all around, smoking armored hulks like prehistoric behemoths brought low. It’s not so much that death and carnage are everywhere, but everywhere is death and carnage.

To wit: when the fresh young recruit, Norman (Logan Lerman), is assigned to the crew of the “Fury,” the battered tank that has survived many battles, his first duty is to clean out the bloody mess left by his predecessor. While doing so, he finds part of the man’s face, perfectly intact, staring at him.

So again I say: not for the squeamish, this.

Pitt has a stout, merciless role as Don, aka “Wardaddy,” the sergeant who commands the Fury. His face done up with scars and hair chopped in a deliberately unattractive fop with shaved sides, Don is sure-handed and unrelenting with the enemy, and the same with his crew. He’ll let them bicker and bitch, but when it’s time for them to perform he will brook no hesitation.

When Norman fails to spot and kill a German soldier with an anti-tank gun, and absolutely horrific results ensue, Don makes personally sure that the lad will not flinch next time, using brutal but effective means. He’ll let the Neanderthal gunner, Grady (Jon Bernthal), indulge his base instincts, but only up to a point.

Don takes a softer hand with Bible, a thoughtful young man played thoughtfully by Shia LaBeouf, and Gordo (Michael Peña), the rock-solid tank driver. The sergeant has promised all his men he will keep them alive, but their latest mission will test that pledge.

The Fury is assigned to a platoon of five tanks to guard a crossroads against a force of fresh German troops, who are threatening the advancing division’s supply line. If they fail, the entire Allied advance will ground to a halt and the war could last months longer.

Ayer shows an expert hand for the battle scenes, keeping the focus on the men inside the Fury while giving a pulse-jumping view of the action outside. Tracer bullets and ordnance flash at the screen like lasers, lending the proceedings an eerie stuck-out-of-time feeling. An encounter with a technologically superior Panzer Tiger is especially effective.

The movie works better as a war picture than a character piece. We never quite get all the way inside the heads of the characters, so their peril doesn’t carry as much emotional freight as you’d expect. And a scene inside the apartment of a German woman and her cousin goes in many different directions at once, like a grenade, rather than focused, like a sniper’s bullet.

Still, this is one depiction of war destined to linger in our memory. At times this movie almost seems like a pugnacious middle finger to the classic war epics, in which disparate men come together for a violent but altruistic cause. “Fury” crushes the notion of the nobility of war under its grinding, pitiless treads.

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