Wednesday, October 29, 2014

FURY Is Beautifully Brutal, But Not Quite Great

FURY Review:

FURY has a lot going for it, but ultimately, it seems torn as to what kind of movie it wants to be. Director David Ayer tends to gravitate towards pulpy, hyperviolent action. But his best film, the underrated End of Watch, went beyond that and mixed tense action with fleshed-out character drama and operatic storytelling. FURY looks to achieve something similar, but it feels like a message movie in search of a message. War is hell, we know, but what we don't know, really, is who the characters are that populate the movie's nightmarish battlefields. There's not quite enough there to give the film the poignancy it needs to 100% resonate. But even so, there is enough in FURY to make it well worth watching: namely, truly epic action and warfare that, thanks to a great cast, provides plenty of excitement.You sort of wish that Ayer had just gone full pulp, and done the comic book war movie that he seems to have wanted to make. But the part of the film that wants to be Saving Private Ryan won't let that happen. And so we're left with an entertaining mash-up of Private Ryan and Sgt. Rock that feels like something striving for, but just missing greatness.

The film takes place in 1945, during the final days of World War II. Hitler's armies are on the defensive, but rather than surrendering, Hitler decides to make one more desperate, bloody push as the allies roll through Germany. Helping to lead the allied charge is Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Bradd Pitt), a squinty-eyed tank commander who's been to hell and back with his battle-tested crew. The names read off like the roll call of an old war comic book: Wardaddy, Gordo, Bible. Oh, and The Walking Dead's Jon Bernthal plays a wild-eyed loose cannon nicknamed "Coon-Ass." It's a motley crew of soldiers, and after one of the unit is killed in a harrowing battle, he's replaced, sure enough, by a fresh-faced recruit - Norman - whose military experience to this point was mostly behind a desk. And so Norman - played by Logan Lerman of The Perks of Being a Wallflower - serves as our eyes and ears into this world of death and danger, swagger and scarred psyches. Norman is thrown right to the wolves, too. Nearly as soon as he joins Wardaddy's crew, the tank is dispatched to head straight into the abyss, to ward off the stronger and sturdier German tanks that stand between the allies and final victory.

Lerman is a fantastic actor, and he really is the heart and soul of this film. Sure, he plays a part that's all-too-familiar in these sorts of movies - the boyish, virginal, rookie whose moral compass has not yet been tainted by the harsh realities of war. But Lerman really elevates the part, keeping you hanging on Norman's every action and reaction. It also helps that the well-oiled tank crew he's thrown in with consists of such great actors. Pitt is at his best as Wardaddy - bringing a sort of John Wayne, stoic cool to the leader who, nonetheless, has that far-off look in his eyes that tells us he's seen some serious $#%& in his day. Michael Pena is also excellent as Gordo, the sane one in the group. His opposite is Bernthal's Coon-Ass, who amps up his Walking Dead shtick to eleven, playing the would-be badass who might hug you or kill you at any given moment, depending on how drunk he is. Bernthal is the new king of playing the unhinged loose cannon, and he does a great job with it here. Surprisingly, Shia LeBeouf is also pretty damn good as Bible, the soft-spoken preacherman who tries to keep the faith even in the seemingly godless arena of battle. Who knew - when LeBeouf is restrained and deliberate as he is here, he can actually act, and even bring a real sense of gravitas to the role. Suffice it to say, the cast is top-to-bottom fantastic, and seeing these actors interact is one of the best parts - if not the best - of the film.

Ayer gives the film a gritty look that lacks the grandeur of many war films, but still feels epic in a smaller, more confined way. The thing of it is that the movie - like its characters - loves the tank (named "Fury," hence the movie's title) that sits at the core of this tale. And the tank - with its cramped, unforgiving, claustrophobia-inducing interior and dusty, grey-metal exterior, is what gives the movie its central aesthetic. The movie makes great effort to put the viewer into that tank, and the film does a fine job of both making you feel like you're there in those cramped confines, and of showing the rhythm of the tank's operation. There's a certain pleasure in simply watching the members of Wardaddy's team operate this heavy machinery, and the movie revels in all the little details that make the tank go.

FURY is brutal. Ayer never shies away from hardcore violence, and he seems hellbent on showing us just how hellish war can be. But to what end? There's a slightly strange tonal inconsistency here. Read between the lines, and the message is that war is falsely glorified by would-be heroes and soldiers, but that ultimately it's ugly, deadly, and a waste of human potential. In a way, it's a fascinating statement to make in a World War II film, as so many films about "the last great war" tend to glorify it, and tend to gloss over some of the death and violence for the sake of not undermining the righteousness of the cause. So there is a potentially interesting and bold point to be made - that even this righteous war was brutal, ugly, and more so a human tragedy than a human victory. But that message that Ayer seems to want to convey never 100% resonates, and is mired in some thematic messiness and a lot of action that seems to strive to be cool rather than look-away ugly.

It's a tough line to walk, and FURY at times feels torn as to what sort of movie it is and what, exactly, it wants to say. But if looked at solely as a semi-pulpy men-on-a-mission movie, it's pretty damn good. Guys like Pitt, Bernthal, and Lerman are good enough and charismatic enough that you don't necessarily need a ton of backstory or character-centric moments for their characters to feel compelling. And the "mission" itself - the journey of this movie - is in and of itself a pretty captivating and riveting one. I just think that extra oomph and thematic focus is missing that would have elevated this from "very good" to "great."

My Grade: B+

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