World War II has proven to be fertile cinematic ground: there are so many inspirational stories to tell from a number of perspectives, all important. The challenge lies in telling a new tale and avoiding treading on familiar territory.
End of Watch director David Ayer’s answer is to see how many actors he can fit into a tank at once, and then subject them to a barrage of against-the-odds scenarios set against the backdrop of the dying embers of war.
It’s April 1945 in Germany, and a Sherman tank nicknamed “Fury” is ready to make its final push forward for the allies.
Commanding this hulking great war machine is Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt), a hardened veteran who has been killing Nazis from Africa to Europe.
Under his watch are the God-fearing Boyd Swan (Shia LaBeouf), uncouth reprobate Grady Travis (John Bernthal), spotter Trini Garcia (Michael Peña), and the rookie of the bunch, trained office clerk, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman).
The platoon is a disparate bunch who must tolerate each other in the claustrophobic confines of their Sherman tank to try and survive against the remaining fanatical divisions of Hitler’s army.
Almost immediately you’re staggered that this is from the same director who recently brought us the visually and narratively incoherent Sabotage, because Fury is a meticulously constructed, beautifully lensed film.
The steady hand of the one-take opening sequence sets the sombre tone that acts as the bed of the movie, as well as being a clever introduction to Brad Pitt’s character.
Succinctly edited, comprehensible action sequences employ a trace bullet method that add a visual flair to the conflict hitherto unseen in any war film.
Ayer has made his most mature, restrained piece of work to date.
Fury has numerous moments of indelible reflection scattered throughout the mayhem, like a time-out during which out tank-top troupe glance skywards to take in a canvas of otherworldly blue streaked with the patterns of advancing bomber planes. It’s a delicate contrast to the brown hues of the battlefield that have dominated the visuals up to that point, and acts as a beautiful ocular breather that the film needs.
In fact, Ayer uses this technique brilliantly throughout the film, taking the time to reflect on the quiet before the storm. This increases the visceral impact of the action, the kind which reverberates in your chest thanks to excellent sound editing, and so that we spend as much downtime with this crew as possible in order to care about their fate when the fighting begins.
Perhaps surprisingly considering the bombast, it’s one of these moments of tranquility which acts as the film’s strongest scene.
After the taking of a small German town, Norman and Don find themselves in the company of two German women, and what unfolds is a sequence of events which is superbly acted and runs the full gamut of emotions for the characters and audience – predominantly fear, but there’s a rare glimmer of light amidst a screenplay smothered in hopelessness.
The magnificent men in their killing machine are also not what you might expect. There’s very little wise-cracking or obvious camaraderie.
Ayer’s script presents us with broken men from the off, with scars to bear, literal and metaphorical open wounds, and the cast embody them fiercely.
Lerman cements his status as a genuine talent; his dehumanisation process is done without cliché and earned throughout the course of the narrative.
Pitt’s turret topping leader is similar to Inglorious’s Aldo Raine, but with a few moments of the kind of anguished self reflection that the actor does so well.
It’s Walking Dead alumnus John Bernthal, and a redemptive Shia LaBeouf, who leave the deepest impression.
The former is terrifying as a feral creation of too much warfare, desensitised and capable of flip-switch violence.
And LaBeouf, with his perma-tear eyes and haunted expression, challenges Lerman for the most empathic of the tankbusters, reminding audiences that there’s real talent under that paper bag.
There are no blurred lines in David Ayer’s vision of war, one which he executes with skill. Anyone who can make sequences featuring cumbersome vehicles charging across a field seem balletic and thrilling deserves praise.
But it’s the beating heart within the tank which makes this stand-out exercise in historical warfare a taught, linear slice of action with the added weight of consequences.
Director: David Ayer
Starring: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, John Bernthal, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena
Running time: 2 hours, 14 minutes
Release date: 22 Oct. 2014 (UK)
4 stars out of 5
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