There’s a saying by the legendary General George S. Patton about war that puts the whole romantic notion of honorable sacrifice in its place, and sums up the savagely pragmatic nature of armed conflict. It goes, “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other dumb bastard die for his country.” I have a sneaking suspicion I’d end up “the other dumb bastard”, since taking any form of life repulses me to the core. What if you don’t have the luxury of choice between kill-or-be-killed, when it is your comrades who will get killed because of your refusal to do what is necessary? The sheer, overwhelming weight of this implication is a theme “Fury” goes out of its way to capture. That, and what becomes of men who are forced to deal with this on a daily basis.
I get the sense that writer-director David Ayer firmly believes that there are no real “good” guys in war, even one that was fought for the right reasons (stopping Hitler). Eventually, everyone is worn down by the inhumanity of it all. Ayer suggests that while black & white morality may not apply in times like these, you can at least share the madness. Like some of his previous films, “Fury” takes a look at professional relationships between men in dangerous jobs, exchanging the cops of “Training Day” and “End Of Watch” for a World War II tank crew. Our introduction to them and their world comes through Logan Lerman’s terrified rookie. The characters here are a collection of stock-standard war movie clichés, from the battle-hardened leader with a heart (Brad Pitt), to the bible-quoting nut (Shia LaBeouf), to the quiet but dependable type (Michael Pena), to the loudmouthed voice of dissent (Jon Bernthal). Clichéd doesn’t mean uninteresting though. The actors are uniformly good, filling in whatever blanks left by the lean script.
Pitt gives his role some believable gravity, despite grappling early on with a dubious accent and mannerisms that veer too close to his caricature in Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds”. Lerman and Bernthal continue to impress, Pena is highly watchable as usual, and even LaBeouf manages to largely disappear into the part (the massive mustache helps). The action sequences are used sparingly, but when they explode onto the screen with all the energy, unflinching brutality and clarity of staging that Ayer can summon, they’re up there with the best the genre has to offer. Not that we’ve gotten a whole lot of tank battles this side of the millennium. Nonetheless, it’s riveting stuff.
There is one moment at the end that some critics have called out as a betrayal of the spirit and message of the film. Personally, I think that while puzzling, the scene is entirely valid. It’s saying something about the senselessness of war, where sometimes people do things that are simply incomprehensible to us. After two solid hours of immersing us in a world of pain, loss, blood, guts, mud and steel, I wonder how anyone could come away thinking there’s anything about the horrors of war that remotely makes sense. “Fury” may not add anything new to the genre, but it is still a very worthy entry that succeeds in being both thrilling and sobering.
Going by conventional wisdom, if you want your film to work you need to make sure your audience likes or understands the protagonist. “Nightcrawler” willfully does the opposite, and still manages to give us a thoroughly captivating protagonist in a film that plays out like a beautifully-crafted love letter to the worst aspects of human nature.
Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a jobless low-life whose fierce intellect is wasted on petty crimes. Until one night, when he stumbles upon the little-known world of nightcrawlers, freelance video “journalists” who rush to the scene of a crime or accident to capture the goriest footage possible, and then sell it to TV stations for their morning news. The motto is “If it bleeds, it leads.” Bloom discovers his true calling, and as he climbs up the ranks he stops at nothing to get what he wants. That includes repositioning corpses to get a better shot, blackmailing his station manager (Rene Russo), and even (literally) destroying his competition. This guy makes the paparazzi look like the Pope.
All this would normally make for a very difficult watch. The film seems to relish sensationalising the amoral, pushing it to the extreme until you’re terribly uncomfortable. Yet it’s impossible not to be mesmerised, like our morbid need to gawk at a fatal car crash. What makes the long, hard gaze into the darkness not just bearable but actually enjoyable is the way writer-director Dan Gilroy handles the material. This is black comedy at its grimmest, and I’m glad to say, funniest. Everything that comes out of Bloom’s mouth sounds like the words of some self-help article or home-study business course, given an alarming yet hilarious new context due to his utterly sociopathic ambition.
Bloom feeds off the suffering of others without the slightest shred of conscience. In other words, he’s a vampire. And Gyllenhaal sure looks it, transforming himself for the role into a gaunt, wide-eyed husk of a person. He has been doing some excellent work in the last few years, but this is definitely a career best. Gyllenhaal is both terrifying and weirdly charismatic, channeling the razor-sharp script to deliver a monster worthy of Hannibal Lecter. They also never give us any insight into why Bloom is the way he is, which just makes him scarier.
Having said that, “Nightcrawler” isn’t about demonising Bloom or the exploitative media. After all, this boils down to supply and demand. The film is simply holding up a mirror to our own voyeuristic tendencies. I won’t even call this satire because it’s so close to what goes on in real life, sadly. I’ve got to hand it to Gilroy. He’s taken a rather unpalatable subject and turned it into one of the most watchable experiences of the year. He’s aided by a solid supporting cast, led by Russo’s quietly compelling performance, and Robert Elswit’s hypnotic cinematography that renders nighttime Los Angeles as a neon-soaked fever dream. With such a terrific directorial debut, Gilroy has set himself up as a major talent to look out for.
KUNG FU JUNGLE
Welcome back, Donnie Yen. We missed you.
After his success with the “Ip Man” series, Yen totally lost his way with a string of embarrassing stinkers like “The Monkey King” and “The Iceman”. A friend of mine blames the Mainland Chinese filmmaking industry, saying that in their eagerness to ape Hollywood’s CG-driven blockbusters the good old-fashioned beat ’em ups fell out of favour. I agree. And I’m happy to report that Yen has realised this too. “Kung Fu Jungle” is a return to form for both the star and the genre.
It’s not entirely a back-to-basics martial arts flick, but it sure cuts damn close to the spirit of the classics. The premise is straightforward yet catchy: a serial killer is systematically murdering the region’s top kung fu masters using their respective disciplines against them, and only Donnie Yen’s imprisoned martial arts instructor knows who he is and how to stop him. Cue a series of duels, each one serving to whet our appetite for the final showdown between Yen and the killer (Wang Baoqiang). This allows other martial arts actors their moment in the spotlight, while Yen gets the chance to flex his dramatic muscles — which are adequate for the thin and sometimes amateurishly-written story. The main sore point here is that for the sake of advancing the plot, the police task force on the case comes across as a bunch of incompetent buffoons. Also, some of the acting is painfully stilted.
Yet none of that really matters if the fight scenes are awesome. And for the most part, they are. Wang is a cartoon villain, but he is more than a worthy opponent for Yen. Doubling as action choreographer, Yen pulls out all the stops for an intense climatic battle set amidst roaring highway traffic and showcasing a whole range of fight styles. Director Teddy Chen has the good sense to just let his camera roll on these two expert combatants, so we get to see every punch, kick and parry with uninterrupted clarity. And that’s really all you need. No excessive wire-work, no CG flash-bangery, and most importantly no bullshit editing or shaky-cam. It’s a lesson Hong Kong once taught the West and is now itself having to relearn. With more efforts like “Kung Fu Jungle” — wobbly writing aside — who knows, maybe we’ll see a return to the glory days of Hong Kong Action Cinema.