Posts Tagged ‘war movie’

Not usually a one for war movies, to be honest, and a friend roundly told me off this week for not even having seen Inglourious Basterds (I have been fairly Tarantino-intolerant since about 2004). Then again, the prospect of seeing something which seems to have a genuinely new angle to it, plus some glowing reviews from proper critics, is usually enough to make me consider trotting along to see almost anything. So this week I went along to David Ayer’s Fury.


Ayer’s movie is set during the death throes of the Second World War, at a time when any potential glamour and nobility the conflict may have had has long since dissipated, and all that remains is a bitter, grubby, futile bloodbath. Brad Pitt plays Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier, a veteran soldier in the US Army, whose experiences across North Africa and Europe have made him a lethally effective tank commander with an obsessive hatred of the Nazis.

As the film opens, Collier’s crew have taken a casualty, and the vacancy is filled by very green new recruit Norman (Logan Lerman), who has been trained as a clerk rather than a tank driver. Most of the first half of the film is devoted to showing us the reality of war through Norman’s eyes, and a horribly grim reality it is too: practically the first job he is assigned is to scrape the remains of his predecessor out of his seat. The rest of the crew have become thoroughly brutalised by their experiences in the war – Fury is not a movie which makes any attempt to depict the American army as in any way heroic. Any German is a potential target, and in some ways the ‘initiation’ Norman receives from his comrades resembles the indoctrination suffered by child soldiers in more recent wars.

At the centre of this is Collier himself, who would no doubt argue that his own safety and that of the rest of the crew depends on Norman’s ability to do what’s necessary in the midst of battle. He is part mentor and part tormentor, slightly more than just another of the damaged bravos he commands. I must confess that in the past I have nearly always seen Brad Pitt as either an identikit leading man or just a pretty boy juvenile lead, but here his performance is genuinely impressive, and worthy of a film in which every moment, line, and shot seems well-judged to convey the sheer awfulness of the subject matter: the characters are in the midst of a pointless slaughter, and one in which they are personally in the most terrible danger. The script spells it out in a number of memorable lines: ‘We’re not here to do good. We’re here to kill Germans,’ Pitt states tersely, near the start, while later he is in a more philosophical mood: ‘Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.’ The Allies may be days away from an historic victory, but the Nazis are putting up a monumental fight, and their own armour massively outclasses the American tanks: one of the little-known historical facts Fury brings to light is that American tank losses outnumbered Nazi ones by a factor of about five, the brutal truth being that they were content to rely on their massive numerical advantage rather than invest in constructing a new main battle tank capable of taking on the German Tigers on an equal footing.

Perhaps bravely, in its first half the film is relatively light on action, choosing to concentrate on establishing the characters and atmosphere. This it does with a journey through a nightmare landscape: mobs of dispossessed civilians roaming fields, hanged ‘traitors’ on every telegraph pole, burning cities in the distance. Things have reached the point where liberated German women offering themselves to American soldiers has become a joyless ritual for both sides, but one which continues to be acted out nevertheless. One of Fury‘s most daring choices is to pause for what feels like ages in a supremely uncomfortable sequence in which Pitt and his men take advantage of the reluctant hospitality of two young German women. The performances of Logan Lerman and the other actors are also excellent, even – perhaps surprisingly – Shia LaBeouf, who has managed to claw second-billing from the more deserving Lerman.

Soon enough, though, Collier and his men are ordered back into action – their mission, to hold a strategic crossroads and protect the flank of the Allied advance on German. However, luck is not on their side, and they find themselves caught in the path of an advancing enemy column which massively outnumbers and outguns them – do they do their duty, or make a pragmatic withdrawal?

There aren’t a great many surprises at this end of the film, but it’s still thoroughly engrossing stuff, with a couple of absolutely exceptional battle scenes – the best of these is a close-quarters encounter between Pitt’s Sherman and a German Tiger, the two tanks almost like roaring, wallowing steel beasts as they desperately struggle to bring their weapons to bear on each other. The combat sequences are gruelling, but also utterly convincing.

Once again, I am a little surprised that Fury has been released as early in the year as it has: this is not just a blood-and-thunder action movie – though it is supremely accomplished in this department – but one which takes pains to work as a serious drama and commentary on the effects of war: somewhere where even victors can also be victims. This is an excellent film.


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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 12th December 2002:

Ah, another month, another low-budget British horror film. This time round it’s Michael J Bassett’s Deathwatch, yet another entry in the currently flourishing war-horror subgenera. Personally I put the current popularity of this down to the fact it comes with social commentary (the class system writ militarily) and guns already built in – plus you can do most of your costume buying down the local army surplus store, always a consideration for the cash-strapped auteur

Well, anyway. In Bassett’s film it’s 1917 and – I think I’m spoiling no-one’s illusions here – some British Tommies are having a rough time of it on the Western Front. Standard squad composition is being complied with, to wit: one jug-eared underage volunteer (Jamie Bell from Ballet Idiot – sorry, Billy Elliot), one grizzled fatherly non-com (Hugo Spear from The Full Monty), a few nondescript guys to be cannon-fodder (to continue the dancing theme, a chorus-line of vaguely familiar faces), one psychopathic nutter (Andy Serkis from a certain jewellery-related triptych), one bible-thumping zealot (Hugh O’Conor) and one posh and feckless officer (Lawrence Fox, who’s the spitting image of his dad Edward. Or James. One of the two, anyway). After an assault on the German lines goes somewhat awry, the squad find themselves in a fog-shrouded wilderness, but soon come across a German trench complex with only a few soldiers left garrisoning it. Our heroes gallantly seize control and decide to await reinforcements… but amidst the mud and desolation, something evil is stirring…

Well, sort of. I can’t really decide how many plot twists Deathwatch is supposed to have in it. The basic plot is similar to one of those short stories that occasionally appeared in comics like Battle or 2000AD or Weird War Tales. I can imagine Bassett reading one as a boy and thinking ‘Wow, that’d make a cool film!’ The main problem is, I suspect a large chunk of the target audience was reading the same sort of thing and will guess what’s going on inside the first ten minutes – it’s not exactly subtly presented. The film would probably play much better with the pre-credits sequence of the assault excised – ironic, as it’s the movie’s biggest set-piece. As it is, the film’s big idea – war is hell, literally – lacks the impact it probably deserves.

The other significant problem Deathwatch has is that what works fine in a ten page comic strip is a bit stretched as the story of a ninety-minute movie. Other than the cast slowly being whittled down, not a huge amount happens in plot terms for about an hour and a quarter. There’s no sense of rising tension or slow realisation, just a decreasing number of faces delivering the dialogue. Then we’re suddenly propelled into a fairly effective climax where the truth of what’s been happening is revealed, before it’s time for the credits. Actually, Bassett seems a bit undecided as to how to pitch the horror aspect of his story – the supernatural force at some points seems content to manipulate the characters into killing each other, while at others it wheels out all manner of nasty special effects so it can do the job itself. Coupled to some fairly vague religious and moral themes and the overriding impression is of a confused mess at the heart of the film.

But, looking on the bright side, it all looks very nice – for a low-budget horror, the production values can’t be faulted. Bassett has spent his budget wisely, mainly on the very convincing trench complex. There’s also subtle and plausible use of CGI effects in a few places, most impressively in the form of some alarmingly animated barbed wire. The squalid, soul-destroying nature of trench warfare is well-evoked by atmospheric direction and cinematography; although I suspect the blood and guts aspects have been toned down to get a softer certification. That said, there is lavish use of splattered brains whenever someone gets shot in the head (this happens quite a lot) and an operatically gruesome scene involving a paraplegic and some… no, I can’t spoil it.

Filmmaking dogma has it that one should get a star, any star, if one possibly can, so in employing the dancing duo of Spear and Bell the director was only obeying orders – for all that casting them in a film like this in an attempt to draw in the Billy/Monty crowd is a bit like casting Eminem in a costume drama to try and entice that important crossover rap audience. Hugo Spear is actually rather good, but like most of the rest of the cast Jamie Bell flounders a bit. This is mainly the fault of some uninspired (and quite possibly anachronistic) dialogue. Andy Serkis is, as usual, animated, and Hugh O’Conor is especially good, but this is despite, rather than because of the script.

Deathwatch isn’t actually a bad film. It looks good, it’s occasionally well-directed, the central idea is strong and the cast are all trying their hardest. But this really isn’t enough to make it fly – it needs more grit, more energy, more plot, or even just a better idea of what it’s actually supposed to be. Unsure as to what direction it really wants to follow, the result is a movie as stuck in No Man’s Land as any of its characters.

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