Mladen and Del review ‘Fury’

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures.

“Fury” Starring Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, and Jon Bernthal. Directed by David Ayer. 134 minutes. Rated R.

Mladen’s take

Remember Donald Rumsfeld, the Bush administration’s principal civilian architect of the disastrous and destabilizing ongoing war in Iraq? He once sniped, if my tired old memory serves, something like, “You don’t go to war with the Army you want. You go to war with the Army you have.” Well, maybe America didn’t go to World War II with the tanks it wanted, but the ones it had – Shermans, as the opening narrative of the film “Fury” suggests.

Fury is the name of the Sherman crewed by the movie’s imperfect protagonists. The setting is April 1945 in Germany, where an American tank platoon is fighting what remains of the Wehrmacht and SS.

“Fury” stars Brad Pitt as war weary tank commander “Wardaddy,” Shia LaBeouf as superstitious gunner “Bible,” Michael Pena as unflappable driver “Gordo,” Jon Bernthal as savage mechanic and main gun loader “Coon-ass,” and Logan Lerman as idealistic and baby-faced assistant driver and hull machinegun gunner “Machine.” Fury, by the way, could just as easily refer to something burning inside each of the tank’s crewmen. Aside from newcomer Machine, they had been fighting together in North Africa and then Europe since 1942.

I have a hard time rating the film. It’s good, but something is missing.

An obvious plus is the movie’s grit, gore, and cussing. Another big plus is that it portrays warfare from a tank crew’s perspective. We’ve seen Hollywood depict WWII from the viewpoint of infantrymen, tin can sailors, and airmen, but not tankers. Also noteworthy are the visual effects. To me, it always looked like real Shermans in column churning muddy dirt roads or squashing hedges or trying to avoid the 88 mm gun of a Tiger tank during a point-blank showdown in a clearing.

LaBeouf as “Bible” was very good as the tank’s scripture quoting dead-eye gunner. For me, no war movie is complete without a character who sees God’s grace amid the carnage and upheaval of hellfire that is bullets, shells, bombs, and rockets. His faith was unshakeable as it tends to be, I imagine, among people desperately trying to make sense of whole-scale, legal murder and destruction of property known as war.

Bernthal as “Coon-ass” was sincerely unlikable. Uneducated and mean-spirited, Coon-ass was hardcore badass until an out-of-character lapse toward the end of the movie. But, he cared for his fellow tankers on the battlefield and that’s all that really mattered.

Pena as “Gordo” was pleasant but memorable for only one reason: He tells a weird story about slaughtering horses while Fury’s crew is occupying a German woman’s apartment. The woman is Romanian actress Anamaria Marinca, In the film, Marinca as “Irma” tries to protect her young, voluptuous cousin, “Emma,” portrayed by German actress Alicia von Rittberg, from the invading horde of GIs. (Check below for Del’s Take on the director’s take of Yankees during the late-war push into Germany. I didn’t realize it until Del and I had our usual movie post-mortem analysis session.)

Lerman as “Machine” did a decent job of losing his humanity as Fury pushed farther into Naziland. He went from avoiding killing to taking part with the best of them.

Let me start by noting Brad Pitt is one of my favorite actors. So, it’s tough to rap his knuckles, but, if “Fury” misses its target even a little, it’s because of him.

Pitt’s effort to portray “Wardaddy,” the Sherman’s staff sergeant commander as a man torn by, or wallowing in, what he has seen and done fails subtly. Wardaddy offers neither good-natured evil like, say, SS Col. Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s and Eli Roth’s “Inglourious Basterds” nor bad-natured goodness like, I don’t know, Schwarzenegger’s T-101 in “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.” Wardaddy is arbitrarily menacing, which may leave some filmgoers unsatisfied.

“Fury” feels authentic. The acting is proficient, the story plausible. “Fury” is a good movie and should be seen on the big screen. But, I felt little sympathy for the main characters. To me, the film’s most moving moment was the tank crew’s encounter with Irma and Emma, two souls protecting each other amid a world at war until their building is blown apart by their counter-attacking, fellow countrymen.

Del’s take

“Fury” follows a long tradition of war movies with a conscience, starting with “All Quiet on the Western Front” and following more recently with “Platoon,” “Full Metal Jacket” and “Saving Private Ryan.” It avoids Oliver Stone and Stanley Kubrick’s politics and pretty much adheres to the theme “War is hell – for most folks.”

I say pretty much.

I think that’s where Mladen is hung up. The movie wanders from its thematic impetus, pulling in tendrils of meaning from a variety of predecessors, from Stone and Kubrick to Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker,” so when it’s over you’re left wondering what to think.

It’s a nice bit of storytelling, though. I enjoyed the unique perspective – a tank crew. Don’t think I’ve ever seen that in a war movie. Nor do I remember a war movie from that time period, the waning days of World War II. By April 1945 the war in Europe was pretty much over and everybody knew it, even the Brown Shirts and lizardly SS henchmen who went scuttling to their burrows in South America.

The characters were nicely flawed but a tad overdrawn for my tastes. Each seemed almost a caricature of his “type,” the possible exception being Shia LaBeouf, who impressed me with his pathos. He pulled off a neat trick – reconciling his religious beliefs with the necessities of his job. And when somebody he loved was killed he showed convincing grief. I felt for him.

Jon Bernthal played virtually the same character he portrayed on “The Walking Dead.” If Bernthal isn’t careful, he’ll be typecast as a redneck. Logan Lerman as the innocent clerk dragooned to shoot Germans and drive the tank if necessary is nicely callow if just a little too good to be true. His conversion to killing machine struck me as slightly suspect – was he trying to save his hide or fit in with his tank crew? Doesn’t matter; the result is the same.

Brad Pitt? What can I say about his role? On the one hand he was the rock solid killer who loved being in his tank, calling it “the best job I’ve ever had” with barely an aftertaste of sarcasm. He was the most amoral of the bunch. But at the same time he showed odd lapses into humanity that didn’t seem to fit his “Wardaddy” persona. I’m not sure if he were a hero, a psycho who loved war, or just didn’t care whether he lived or died.

Nor am I sure of the movie’s politics, if it had any. All the immoral acts we saw on the screen were committed by Americans. Ordinary German soldiers and civilians were portrayed as victims; only the SS committed similar acts of inhumanity, and they were presented as after the fact. I don’t know if that was intentional or merely a figment of my imagination.

The movie is structured similarly to “Saving Private Ryan” and there are similarities in characters, although “Ryan” masterfully tones down their flaws.

In the end, I’d give “Fury” a solid B. I enjoyed the action sequences and special effects, and the attempt to tell more than just a story. I was put off by some of the character extremes and the apparent dilution of thematic consistency.

Mladen Rudman is a former journalist and technical writer. Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.