Rolling into prestigemovie season

‘Fury’s’ battle scenes make up for heavy-handed filming, LaBeouf

by Willie Krischke

“Best job I ever had.” This is the toast members of a tank crew all offer to each other at the end of a particularly intense battle sequence in the new World War II drama “Fury.”

They’re being sarcastic and/or ironic – all of them would rather be somewhere, anywhere, else. But you get the sense that, even in the midst of the joke, they’re also speaking the truth. The adrenaline rush of a kill-or-be-killed situation is addictive, and so is the camaraderie of being in that situation with four other guys. Add to that a cause worth fighting for, and you’ve got quite a powerful cocktail of violence, sacrifice and courage. And so even though every one of them would whoop and holler at the chance to go home, you get the sense that they’re going to find any other job startlingly anticlimactic.

Brad Pitt, aka “Wardaddy,” plays a Sherman tank commander in the World War II drama “Fury.”  The film is directed by David Ayer and also stars Michael Pena, Shia LaBeouf and Logan Lerman.

It’s 1945, D-Day is over and done with, and the Allies are marching through Germany, waiting for Hitler to put a bullet in his own brain and the Germans to quit fighting. The Germans have taken to recruiting children at this stage in the war, and executing the ones who won’t fight. It’s not at all clear if the soldiers are still fighting the Nazis, who are already beaten, or in a mad dash to beat the Soviets to Berlin and keep Russia from becoming the dominant power in Europe. Maybe it doesn’t matter. The war has to be won in reality, not just in theory.

Brad Pitt, aka “Wardaddy,” is a Sherman tank commander, and an exceptionally good one – he’s kept the same crew since Africa, an almost unheard-of feat. Pitt’s performance is solid. I was afraid, after watching the trailer, that he’d be rehashing his character from “Inglourious Basterds,” but he brings the necessary gravitas and even sadness to the role. “Fury” picks up after a particularly bloody battle in which the crew has suffered its first casualty.

There’s “Bible,” played by a mustachioed Shia LaBeouf, who must ask everyone he meets if they’re saved. Also “Gordo,” played by Michael Pena, and the monosyllabic “Coon-Ass,” who’s supposed to be from Alabama or something. The whole crew is shell-shocked and none too happy when their dead partner is replaced by a clerk/typist with no combat experience or training. That’s Logan Lerman, in the role Shia LaBeouf would’ve played five years ago, the fresh-eyed kid, wet behind the ears (and in the eyes) who you know from the moment he’s introduced will be the only one left alive by the time the credits roll.

As for LaBeouf, he isn’t the gee-gosh kid anymore, but if he’s learning to act, it’s slowly. The guy seems to have the acting range of a chef in a kitchen full of onions. Hiding behind a god-awful mustache, he can’t seem to get through more than three lines without tears flooding his puppy dog eyes, and he very nearly ruins more than one scene by turning on the waterworks. In contrast, I will watch Michael Pena in almost anything. He has the rare ability to be goofy one moment and tough the next, to tell a joke and then bark an order seamlessly. His rapport with Jake Gyllenhaal in “End of Watch” absolutely saved that movie, which would have been unwatchable with a dourer, less verbally acrobatic actor. Someone like LaBeouf, for instance.

“Fury” boils down to a series of action sequences, with moral proclamations (some heavy-handed, some lighter) interspersed in between. There’s not really much time for characterization; aside from one extended scene involving a dinner with two shell-shocked German women, there’s hardly a moment outside the tank. We learn about these guys through their behavior in combat, which means that, by the end, we know almost nothing about them, yet everything we need to know. I think this is on purpose; it reflects how these men know each other. They may not know one another’s wife’s name, hometown or favorite baseball team, but they know exactly what to expect from each other in a fight. Their shared experience is going to be something that will bond them together forever – and something they’ll spend the rest of their lives trying to forget.

And oh, those action sequences. The big ending is thrilling, an effects-laden blowout, riddled with tracers screaming through the night air as one Sherman tank takes on what seems to be the entire German army. But even better than that is a breathtakingly tense earlier showdown between the Sherman and one giant German Panzer. It’s bigger and better armored; our boys are faster and the tanks whirl around each other in an open field like predators battling for territory, executing breathtaking turns and fighting for an angle, an edge, a way to get a shot off. It looks like something out of “Top Gun.” It’s hard to imagine these giant blocks of steel and mud ever looking quick or graceful, but that’s exactly what makes this scene so exciting and memorable.

“Fury” is the best war film to come along since “Letters of Iwo Jima.” It’s significantly better than “Monuments Men” or “War Horse,” or that tonally confused Spike Lee joint a couple years ago. A lingering sentimentalism keeps “Fury” from elevating to the rare ranks of the very best war films, like “Saving Private Ryan.” Director David Ayer is a little bit too willing to linger on horrific images. He extends beyond showing the horrors of war and, at times, it feels like he’s elbowing us and saying, “horrible, isn’t it?” It gets a little irritating; there’s a fine line between “unblinking” and “gawking,” and a lighter hand behind the camera would have served the film better. Nonetheless, it’s a fine film, with some great scenes.

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