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“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.

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 rest of the Germans to quit fighting. They’ve 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 know that they are fighting so hard not to defeat the Nazis, who are already beaten, but to race the Soviet army to Berlin, that their lives are lost in a mad dash to keep the Russia from becoming the dominant political power in Europe. But maybe it doesn’t matter. The war has to be won, in reality, not just in theory.

Brad Pitt, aka ‘Wardaddy’ is the commander of a Sherman tank, and an exceptionally good one – he’s kept the same crew together since Africa, and that’s an almost unheard-of feat.  Pitt’s performance is solid; I was afraid, after watching the trailer, that he’d be rehashing the character he played in “Inglourious Basterds,” but he brings the necessary gravitas and even sadness to the role. “Fury” picks up the crew after a particularly bloody and devastating battle, and they’ve suffered their first casualty.  There’s “Bible,” played by a mustachioed Shia LeBeouf, 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 grieving, 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 LeBeouf 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 LeBouf, 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 in the role. Someone like Shia LeBeouf, for instance.

“Fury” boils down to a series of action sequences, with moral proclamations (some heavy-handed, some lighter and better) 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 of the tank. We learn what we learn about these guys through their behavior in combat, which means that, by the end, we both know almost nothing about them, and also 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, riddles 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 of 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 us the horrors of war and, at times, 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 and memorable scenes.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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