Before poor Paul W.S. Anderson made a fatal misstep with Alien Vs. Predator and was maligned, he made a few really excellent genre flicks back in the mid to late 90’s, one of them being the mostly forgotten and excessively fun Soldier, starring a mostly mute and wholly badass Kurt Russell as a genetically bred super soldier who has fallen on hard times. His name is Todd 3465, and he’s from the last line of soldiers who are in fact real humans, albeit altered. There’s a new program moving in, wherein actual replicants are produced, rendering Todd obsolete. The head of the new outfit is sadistic Colonel Mekum (Jason Isaacs in full evil prick mode), who wants to do away with anything that isn’t state of the art. Todd is thrashed in a one on one smackdown with Mekum’s lead soldier (Jason Scott Lee), and then left to die on a remote planet used only for trash disposal and inhabited by wayward crash survivors who scavenge what they can. Todd is immediately the outsider, an unfeeling asset bred only for combat and alien to human qualities. A few among the group, including their leader Mace (Anderson regular Sean Pertwee) and Jimmy Pig (Michael Chicklis) attempt to connect, but it’s gorgeous Connie Nielsen who finally breaks the ice. He may be conditioned to kill, but he’s still a human man after all, and there’s some base instincts you just can’t ignore. Trouble brews when Mekum shows up again, that bastard. Now he wants to vaporize their planet on the grounds that the refugees are essentially squatting. Undermining him is Todd’s former boss Church (an unusually restrained Gary Busey), an honorable military veteran who’d love to put Mekum six feet under and restore order. Todd must help his newfound friends, fight tooth and nail against replicants and win his superiority back. Russell is a tank in the role, letting both silence and action speak volumes, a one man old school ass kicking hero of the highest order. The world building and outer space effects are incredibly fun, the villains are broadly characterized with the force of a western, and the whole film knows what people want for a good time at the cinema. Oohh and fun fact: this takes place in the same cinematic universe as Blade Runner, and you can listen for the brief tie in reference that only die hards will pick up on. Great stuff.
David Ayer’s Fury is the most fearsome, unrelenting war film of the decade and quite the experience to sit through. One stumbles out of the theatre as shell shocked as the brave soldiers we’ve just witnessed onscreen, needing time to wind down from the horror, after which we realize that among the thunderous bravura and non stop, head shattering combat are moments of tender humanity and ponderous reflection, just enough to contrast the madness. Logan Lerman has the pretty boy look, which is quickly stripped away and replaced by frenzied terror and confusion, playing a young army clerk who hasn’t seen one second of combat, suddenly tasked with joining the ranks of a tank warfare crew. They are each hardened in their own way by what they’ve seen and done. Brad Pitt is Wardaddy, their iron jawed commander in a gritty, unstable and altogether brilliant performance. Jon Bernthal is the obligatory redneck Neanderthal, a big lug whose brutish ways mask a childlike yearning beneath. Shia Leboeuf is the restrained one, a bible reader and thinker whose resentment of the war radiates from his eyes like sad and sick beams of sympathy. Michael Pena, reliably excellent, is the closest to neutral of the group. Ayer airdrops us right into the action without pretext, warning or proclaimed intention. This isn’t a ‘men on a mission’ war flick, this is a single harrowing day in the lives of men at the end of the world as well as their ropes, an intimate study of the horror inflicted on both body and soul, both soldier and civilian, the collective horrific impact of the war refracted through the prism of a small period of time. Such a tactic has huge potential, and here it works wonders in brining us closer to these characters, as well as anyone they meet along their way. Pitt leads this ragtag band with the indifferent sentiment of a hardened, brittle man who has been in one too many a tight spot and seen one too many a comrade fall under his care to waste time with compassion for the enemy. Time and tide have turned killing into a purely instinctual, second nature business for him, and we see this unfold in a kicker of a scene where he forces Lerman to murder an unarmed German private who begs for his life. Such is war, and such is Ayer’s film, free from Hallmark moments and structured escapism. Midway through, the film stops dead in its tracks for a beautiful, tension filled sequence in which the band finds temporary refuge in crumbling abode with two German girls. The culture shock is numbed out by the extremity of the war, and these two groups are forced to coexist, if only for an hour or so. The youngest of the girls (Alicia Von Rittberg) is stunning, a baleful example of the corrupts of innocence, her character arc a testament to the senselessness of war. The combat scenes within the tank clank with clammy, claustrophobic dread and desperation, helped by the fact that for the most part they filmed inside real replicas. Jason Isaacs shows up in yet another war movie role as a grizzled commander who briefly assists them, and (of course) steals his two quick scenes in the process. War films often struggle to find humanity amongst the ugliness by trying a little too hard, and by being a little too obvious. This one is frank, unrelenting and assaults you with a deafening roar of chaos, with a few extremely subtle moments of introspect and emotion. It may just have cracked the formula for finding the comfort in such turmoil: less is more. One of the best war movies I’ve ever seen.