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"FURY"
(2014) (Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama/Action: A U.S. tank crew makes their way behind enemy lines near the end of the European half of WWII.
PLOT:
It's April 1945 and the Allies have pushed German forces back into Germany, and Sgt. Don "Wardaddy" Collier (BRAD PITT) has lead his Sherman tank crew -- consisting of driver Trini "Gordo" Garcia (MICHAEL PENA), gunner Boyd Swan (SHIA LaBEOUF) and his shell loader, Grady Travis (JON BERNTHAL) -- there all of the way from the earlier battles starting in Africa. But they've lost their assistant driver and machine gunner in their latest battle and aren't particularly happy to see his replacement.

And that's because Norman Ellison (LOGAN LERMAN) has only been in the war for a few weeks and has been trained as a clerk-typist and not a soldier. Nonetheless, Don and his crew head out on their next mission under the orders of Captain Waggoner (JASON ISAACS), and Norman's inexperience is put to the test during an ambush, all of which results in Don forcing him to make his first war kill.

Along the way, they have a brief interlude in a German town where Don takes Norman up to meet a local woman, Irma (ANAMARIA MARINCA), and her daughter, Emma (ALICIA VON RITTBERG), who's about Don's age. When the rest of the team eventually shows up and isn't pleased that Don seems to be favoring Norman, it's uncertain what will happen.

Yet, duty calls and they're off again, this time to defend a vital intersection from approaching German forces. But when their tank breaks down, they must contend with the challenges that and the opposing forces will provide.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Back in the early days of the video game revolution in arcades, one of my favorite quarter collectors was "Battlezone." In today's standards, it was unbelievably primitive, what with its wire frame renderings and limited colors. But back in 1980 it was the bomb, so to speak, as it let one drive a tank and shoot other tanks while trying to avoid being hit. Notwithstanding the hostile UFOs that were inexplicably present, it was the closest thing the world had to engaging in tank battle short of the real thing. Today's tank-based video games obviously offer better realism in terms of graphics, sounds and such, but they're still certainly far, far removed from the real experience.

While today's modern tanks likely provide some small degree of creature comforts and advanced technology in them, the combat tanks of old were just heavily armored and armed hunks of metal on rolling treads. They were certainly better than standing out in the battlefield on foot, and might not have been as claustrophobic as submarines (what with the can't escape due to all of the surrounding water matter), but I can only guess that they were less than a pleasant experience.

Life in such a military instrument of death and destruction -- and the good and sometimes strained camaraderie of the men stuck inside such a mechanized beast -- is the subject of the WWII action pic, "Fury." Named for the moniker given to a mid 1940s era Sherman tank deployed by the Americans into the European theater, the film comes from the mind and fingers of David Ayer, a filmmaker known for featuring male dynamics in hostile environs.

No stranger to WWII tales (he penned the submarine flick "U-571"), he also wrote "Training Day" and wrote & directed "Harsh Times," "Street Kings" and 2012's "End of Watch" and he continues his trip through testosterone dripping conflict as both writer and director here.

The film stars Brad Pitt as the tank's commander, and while he's killing Nazis once more like he did in Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds," the story doesn't re-imagine WWII history with a "what if" flight of fancy. Instead, it plays everything straight, although as far as I can tell, it's not based on any actual historical event or real-life people from that long-running and ultra deadly conflict.

The story centers on Pitt and his small team having trekked from Africa and then up through Europe in their trusty tank and home away from home, killing Germans along the way. They're now deep in Germany and the war is nearly over (it's April 1945), but they still have a job to do. Unfortunately for them, one of their team members has perished, and they get an unlikely replacement in the form of a clerk-typist (Logan Lerman) who's been assigned to perform as the assistant driver and machine gunner despite having no experience or intestinal fortitude for any of that.

His character is the surrogate for the film's viewers in terms of what it would have been like to figuratively and literally be thrown into the maelstrom and be the outsider of a close-knit group of battle-worn men (the others are played by Michael Pena, John Bernthal and Shia LaBeouf). Unlike, say, "Saving Private Ryan" where there was a definite story throughput to a desired goal and outcome, Ayer takes the segment route where his characters are ordered on a number of assignments, with one brief interlude of downtime between battles.

While some viewers and especially critics might not like the episodic nature and feel of that approach, I found it highly effective in terms of showcasing the randomness and uncertainty such crews faced and experienced in war. It's certainly ugly, graphic and depressing in what's presumably a realistic portrayal of what it must have been like (the production design and cinematography are outstanding), and the action scenes are nothing short of gripping.

But Ayer is also going after the dehumanizing effects that war has on people. While that's nothing new, the transformation of Lerman's character from unwilling participant to eager killer is compelling, while the portrayals of the rest of the men is eye-opening as well. LaBeouf (who hasn't been this good in a long time) plays the religious character who gets through this via his belief in a higher calling. Pena plays the Mexican-American who must still contend with bits of racism due to his heritage. And John Bernthal plays the most animalistic of the bunch, a potentially ticking time bomb who's either been utterly transformed by years of mayhem or has simply let this be an excuse for letting his true self run rampant.

It's Pitt, though, who delivers the most compelling performance. I've always liked him as an actor (unfortunately his celebrity-dom via his marriages to famous actresses has overshadowed some of that), and he shines here in what's not that complicated of a character. Yet, despite that, his brashness, and his ease of killing enemy soldiers, there's a world of hurt, disgust, despair and simply wanting all of this to be over within his character's eyes. In short, he says a lot without saying a word.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in two particular scenes. One is when he must "teach" his novice replacement how to kill and thus forcibly forces the young man to shoot a captured German, knowing his life and that of his crew are at stake if he doesn't. But you can see the hurt in him afterwards, along the lines of "what have I become?"

The second is during the aforementioned downtime when he takes his young protégé up to the apartment of a woman in a captured German town. We initially don't know what his plans are with the women (Anamaria Marinca and Alicia von Rittberg) and they're understandably scared and wary, but he's just seeking some semblance of civility (and a deflowering for his new crewmember) for a few scant moments. That's shattered when the rest of the team shows up with other things in mind. While it might not be written as well as what Tarantino did with the playing card scene in "Basterds," it's an equal powder keg of uncertainty for the viewer, and it's clearly a stand-out scene in the flick.

But then war returns and the team heads back into the maelstrom (following a plot sucker punch that further highlights the waste of war), resulting in a last stand sequence that might stretch believability a bit for some, but nonetheless works thematically and in terms of action. Overall, I liked "Fury" a lot, and while it's clearly not going to be for all viewers (especially the squeamish), it does hammer home the horrors of war, something video games, no matter how visually realistic, can't even come close to touching. The film rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed October 9, 2014 / Posted October 17, 2014


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