Friday, October 17, 2014

In Theaters: FURY (2014)

(US - 2014)

Written and directed by David Ayer. Cast: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, Jason Isaacs, Brad William Henke, Xavier Samuel, Scott Eastwood, Kevin Vance, Jim Parrack, Anamaria Marinca, Alicia von Rittberg, Laurence Spellman. (R, 133 mins)

It's been 16 years since the visceral brutality of the opening sequence of Steven Spielberg's SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, a horrific depiction of the D-Day invasion at Normandy, forever changed the cinematic depiction of war. Sure, plenty of war films, especially those centered on Vietnam, pulled no punches and went straight for the jugular, but SAVING PRIVATE RYAN was a game-changer, at least as far as depictions of long-ago wars were concerned. Its impact has been felt in practically every war film or TV show that came in its wake, from the graphic detail of the beloved HBO miniseries BAND OF BROTHERS and THE PACIFIC to the infamous femoral artery scene in Ridley Scott's BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001). The fictional FURY, set in April 1945 during the final month of action in the European theater, is a film that wants to be another SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, but really only ends up being an exponentially more violent and foul-mouthed take on the kind of WWII saga that would've been made in the days after WWII and into the late 1960s. It has engrossing story, some good performances, and some well-shot battle sequences that abstain from today's standard quick-cut shaky-cam action, but there's a gnawing feeling that you've seen it all before, from the graphic carnage and the way ammunition shreds through flesh to the outsider joining an established unit and going through the requisite hazing and having to prove his manhood, to Brad Pitt's performance being a somewhat toned-down rehash of his work as Lt. Aldo Raine in Quentin Tarantino's INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009). Writer/director David Ayer (END OF WATCH) has Spielberg-sized ambitions, but he can't resist relying on easy genre tropes, cardboard characterizations, and fuckin' macho tough guy fuckin' posturing just like he fuckin' had earlier this fuckin' year in fuckin' SABOTAGE, one of fuckin' 2014's worst fuckin' movies. And please, in the name of all things cinematic, the time has come to declare a moratorium on alpha-male lunkheads in war movies or cop movies or firefighter movies or doctor movies--any kind of real-world movie or TV show with an ensemble of everyday people doing heroic things--feeling the need to emphatically declare "This is what we do!"

FURY focuses on a close-knit Sherman tank crew (the tank has been christened "Fury") led by Wardaddy (Pitt), a stern, no-nonsense type who lives for war because it's what he does. He's fiercely protective of his men: devoutly-religious Bible (Shia LaBeouf), fast-talking Gordo (Michael Pena), and sub-literate hillbilly Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal). They've just lost their assistant driver and Wardaddy isn't happy with his newest addition: inexperienced and terrified Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a typist who's been in the Army for eight weeks. Naturally, Norman is razzed and ridiculed by the others and an early fumbling of the ball leads to another tank commander being ambushed and killed by German soldiers ("That's on you!" Wardaddy yells, because of course he does). Ayer's episodic script follows the men on a series of assignments, culminating in an epic battle where every other tank in their company is destroyed and they hit a mine shortly after, rendering the tank immobile. Rather than turn the film into DAS TANK, Ayer introduces a battalion of German officers approaching from further down the road as the men of Fury strap in, hunker down, and arm themselves for a 5-against-300 suicide mission that jettisons the relative realism of the preceding 80 or so minutes as the film degenerates into the equivalent of a WWII cartoon.

Ayer leaves no cliche unused, and the men of Fury exit in the exact order you expect.  Of course, Norman proves his worth to the crew and earns his own cool nickname--"Machine"--because that's what he is. The arc of "Machine" hits all the required marks of a naive, innocent, baby-faced kid turning into a battle-hardened killer. And of course, Coon-Ass isn't the complete dipshit he spends almost the entire film being, acting like a bullying Neanderthal before putting his arm around Machine and grunting "Yer alright." Some attempts at character depth are made, like Wardaddy excusing himself so he doesn't look shaky and apprehensive in front of his adoring men, and LaBeouf turns in a strong performance as Bible, with a stare that belongs to a good-hearted man who's dangerously close to losing it--it's too bad Ayer undermines LaBeouf's performance by almost constantly showing him with tears welling in his eyes to the point where it becomes unintentionally funny. But for a film where none of war's graphic horrors are spared--heads are blown off, tanks squash corpses underneath, limbs are seared off, bodies split in half, Norman has to clean up pieces of his dead predecessor's face--the most impressive and suspenseful section of FURY is a long sequence where Wardaddy and Norman invite themselves into the home of a German woman (Anamaria Marinca) and her niece (Alicia von Rittberg). We're not sure where it's going, but as the women make eggs and coffee and Wardaddy shaves, a romance blossoms between Norman and the niece and there's a temporary and oddly tranquil domesticity amidst the madness that's destroyed when the other three guys from Fury drunkenly barge in and behave like animals. The ultimate end to this detour is that it makes Norman a man in more ways than one, but it's a strange sequence (I'm surprised the studio didn't make Ayer shorten it or cut it entirely) that demonstrates something genuinely substantive beyond Ayer's uber-macho dick-swinging and the checklist of war movie cliches and could almost function as a stand-alone short film. If only the rest of FURY was as unpredictable and willing to take chances.

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