Tag Archives: Brad Pitt

How We Mold Men — “Fury”

Fury tank

by Gabriel Valdez

There is a review for Fury in my head that I will never write. I’ll try to tell you why:

Fury follows a tank crew pushing into Nazi Germany late in World War 2, but this is merely what happens. It’s not what Fury is about. I could call Fury the best war movie since Clint Eastwood made his Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima double feature. I wouldn’t be wrong, but it doesn’t hit the nail on the head. Instead, I’ll call Fury one of the best movies about indoctrination since A Clockwork Orange.

You see, Brad Pitt’s Sgt. Collier, the tank commander who leads four young men into battle, cannot be called a “good guy.” If beating his subordinates or forcing them to shoot unarmed prisoners helps them to survive, then that is what he’ll do. If allowing his crew to blow off steam by assaulting the local women helps them to survive, then that is what he’ll allow.

When Collier’s tank gets a new assistant driver, a fresh-faced clerk named Norman (Logan Lerman) with zero combat experience, Collier will beat him, emotionally abuse him, and force him to murder and rape. The strange thing is – the utterly difficult thing about this movie – is that writer-director David Ayer forces you to understand Collier. His only goal is to keep his crew alive. His every decision contributes to this. Everything outside that tank – enemy, civilian – is only there to keep his crew breathing that much longer.

Fury Brad Pitt

There are beautiful, fleeting moments when Pitt lets you see the toll this takes on Collier’s conscience. This is a man who’s made a judgment that his crew’s survival is worth every other moral transgression. Later in the movie, it’s revealed he knows the Bible verse-for-verse, yet he’s kept this hidden. Why? Because he’s rejected its applicability. Living morally in war, he believes, will get the men around him killed, and they are his responsibility. His duty is to mold men and make them hate – him, themselves, the enemy, it doesn’t matter so long as that hate takes away any hesitation before pulling a trigger.

One of the most nerve wracking scenes involves Collier playing house during a lull in combat. He uses Norman and two German women hiding in an apartment to create a pale reflection of a normal family supper. It’s Collier’s momentary reprieve from war, and yet it’s terrifying for these two women.

Are the things Collier does wrong? Of course they are. But to make men kill each other for years on end and then be shocked that they’ve committed sins is perverse: judging them for it is perverse, not judging them for it is perverse.

Fury Shia LaBeouf

Fury is rousing, its tank battles brilliantly intense. Collier is among Pitt’s best characters. Lerman, Michael Pena, and Jon Bernthal deliver nuanced, touching performances as the tank crew, and of all actors, Shia LaBeouf is going to make you cry.

Fury is not interested in being an easy movie, nor a palatable one. It is difficult. There are no good guys by its end, just men who judged for themselves what sacrifices they were willing to make of others, and in their own souls, in order to keep the men beside them alive.

And though many young men aren’t faced with platoons of enemy soldiers, we are often brought up to act as if we will be, to believe the shortest route to strength is in hating some perceived weakness in ourselves or in others. We’re often taught to be manly is to bury sentimentality and sensitivity and mercy in order to make our way in the world.

There is a review for Fury in my head that I will never write, because in some way, every young man grows up with the expectation that we will be willing to trade those pieces of our soul in order to survive, that emotion makes us weak and exerting our willpower on another makes us strong, that our flaws can be cured with our worst behavior. We’ve each been taught our own small portion of perversion. In its own way, Fury lays that bare.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does Fury have more than one woman in it?

Yes. The two women in the apartment with whom Collier tries to play house.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Briefly.

3. About something other than a man?

Possibly. Some of their German is subtitled. Some isn’t.

Truth be told, I’d have to watch again to see if they talk only about the soldiers, or if they discuss something else. Most of their interaction is silent because they are so terrified – there’s not much dialogue at all and whether they pass or don’t pass the third rule is essentially immaterial. Their conversation takes place under the fear of being raped, so even if they are talking about dinner, they’re not really talking about dinner.

Can it be forgiven? No, nothing in Fury can be forgiven, and that’s the point. Plot-wise, it’s a movie about a World War 2 tank crew, which were only composed of men. Thematically, it’s a movie about men molding other men by threatening them with violence, making them commit violence, and using peer approval and women as the prizes for doing right (i.e. killing without hesitation).

World War 2 is often considered one of the last righteous American wars. This doesn’t mean it was any easier for those involved. What Fury does best is make us still feel for the men who do these awful things – not just to the enemy, but to each other and to innocent bystanders. We begin to understand why, not to give it a pass, but to comprehend just how mad and hellish struggling for one’s life day after day can become.

To watch characters who commit atrocities and still feel for them, to cry over their internal struggles and shake as their fates are decided…it’s a rare experience in any form of storytelling. The point isn’t that these things are forgivable. It’s that they aren’t, and yet we force soldiers into situations where they will increasingly choose the unforgivable just to stay sane.

By extension, what does it say that we use these same tactics to train and reward men for being “manly” in times of peace, or at home during wartime? To be manly, must we always be in a constant state of war with someone, must we always be finding something new to hate in order to draw strength, must we always beat down the sensitive among us until their own window to hate is opened, so they can become manly like us?

The most important way you can understand Fury is to not forgive it. Ayer and Pitt and those involved have created these characters and moments to be unlikeable for a reason. It’s no mistake that the last person in the world you’d ever expect to show mercy is the one that does. It’s the only time two characters connect in the film, understand each other with all the B.S. removed, see in each other what they’ve lost along the way.

Can Fury be forgiven? I’ll be troubled if it is. It’s the rare piece of art that wants you to talk about why it can’t be.

Fury the dinner scene

Bits & Pieces — Fight Choreography as Myth, “Troy” and “Serenity”

We look at fight choreography and often think it’s just different ways for people to hit and punch each other, but stunt coordinators and fight choreographers put just as much thought and artistry into a fight as a costume designer does into a film’s wardrobe, or a cinematographer does into the film’s shots. Fights themselves can hit you down low, where you feel it in your bones, or can become a dance of mythic proportions that sparks the part of us that marvels at art.

Let’s take two well-choreographed films, Troy and Serenity. Why these two? Brad Pitt and Summer Glau, that’s why. The All-American character actor and the ballet dancer-turned-genre actress both played characters that fought with a sort of preternatural, psychic skill.

Pitt first – an adaptation of Homer’s The IliadTroy is a mess of a film. It’s an unintentional masterpiece of trashiness, despite never being all that trashy, in which a Trojan prince kidnaps a Greek princess and sets the two empires to war. It has gorgeous technical elements – I have no idea as to their historical accuracy (I’m guessing there’s not much), but its costume design and make-up remain some of the best ever seen in a sword-and-sandal epic. Troy also boasts Sean Bean (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) as Odysseus, which teased in the minds of millions of fans the barest shred of a hope of a much better movie – The Odyssey starring Sean Bean. Alas, it was not to be.

What Troy did best, however, was fight choreography. It featured Brad Pitt as Greek warrior Achilles, the most famed of all warriors, and Eric Bana as the honorable Trojan prince, Hector. Watch an early battle sequence featuring Achilles:


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Stunning, right? Well, everything aside from Pitt’s acting, though I blame director Wolfgang Petersen more for that. At times in Troy, Pitt owns the screen; at other times it seems like he’s still rehearsing. What always delivers is that choreography, though. There are two elements at play here. The first is the Stunt Coordinator – in this case, Simon Crane. You can see his ability to choreograph large battle scenes. It’s his calling card, after all – the man choreographed the massive battles of Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan. He’s also responsible for the fantastic and complex gun fu of Mr. and Mrs. Smith and the incredibly clever sword fights in Stardust. If the Academy gave out Oscars for stunts (which they should), Crane would be the Meryl Streep of stunt coordinators. (Jackie Chan would be Katharine Hepburn; just go with the metaphor).

Crane’s style does have a few interesting nuances. He tends to use extras instead of visual effects, and Troy only employs vast numbers of CGI troops in its biggest battle sequence. This makes Crane’s battles feel more organic, but using college kids playing hooky as your extras has its drawbacks. If you look past Mel Gibson in Braveheart as he gleefully hacks his way through enough Englishmen to fill an Olympic swimming pool, you’ll see numerous instances of extras half-heartedly swinging axes meters away from each other, or spearmen charging each other with their spears held out of the way. You can’t spend your entire budget insuring the extras, after all. It’s a necessary trade-off, and I still prefer organic battles to CGI-heavy ones.

Troy Achilles

One of Crane’s trademarks is in developing choreography suited to individual actors. Every central character in Troy – Achilles, Hector, Ajax, Menalaus – fights in a different style. All except Patroclus, whose emulation of older cousin Achilles causes Hector to mistake the two and slaughter Patroclus in battle. Cue Achilles riding to the gates of Troy to challenge Hector to a 1-on-1 duel.

These individual choreographies are developed separately from the large-scale battles. This is the second element key to these complex sequences: Crane employs a Sword Master, the excellent Richard Ryan, to develop specific choreography for each actor. Ryan makes a point of Achilles’ preternatural fighting ability. In the Greeks’ beach landing above, there’s a point at which Achilles places his shield upon his back just as an arrow buries itself where his kidney would have been. His choreography for Achilles is filled with moments like these – there’s a sense of either the gods watching out for Achilles or the warrior possessing a sixth sense for unpredictable threats.

When Achilles fights Hector, it’s really more of a ballet on Achilles’ part. He’s already positioned himself for Hector’s next attack before Hector makes it. There’s even a moment when Achilles rests his shield on the back of his neck, an utterly preposterous fighting position. It creates an iconic profile, however, as if Achilles is posing for his statue. Moments later, Achilles deflects a sword blow meant for his neck by spinning around – he’s planned that many moves ahead how Hector will combat him. Achilles is, essentially, fighting psychically. Watch:


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Now for Summer Glau – her choreography as River Tam in Serenity is an incredibly close comparison. The style of fighting is completely different, but the effect that’s achieved is similar. In writer-director Joss Whedon’s movie adaptation of the gritty sci-fi show Firefly, River Tam is a character who is powerfully psychic. Summer Glau, the actress who plays her, started out as a ballet dancer. Watch a later scene and compare it with the choreography given Pitt at the end of that beach scene.


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The Fight Choreographer for Serenity was Ryan Watson. The style he gives River Tam – while different from Achilles’ – is still based on moves that clear where her opponents’ weapons will be, and is centered around positioning herself in anticipation of how those opponents will move. It’s worth noting that Glau – like Pitt and Bana – performs her own stunts and choreography. Her training as a dancer also allows Whedon to use her in a way Petersen can’t use Pitt in Troy: the entire fight scene is done in one shot. It’s a shorter scene, but you’ll notice Whedon’s tendency for extended takes in the longer Maidenhead fight we’ll watch momentarily.

Now, if you’ve ever been in a real fight and you’ve had training, you’ll know that the fight – at least at first – takes place in your head. You seek the strongest position possible and, more importantly, you seek to put your opponent in as disadvantageous a position as possible. If you do a good enough job of that, the fight’s decided before anyone throws a punch. The physical just follows the mental via muscle memory. There is a real element of predicting and guiding your opponent into specific physical and mental positions, setting up your own moves and his reactions.

Both the choreography for Glau and Pitt are unreal extensions beyond this. In Glau’s case, it specifically highlights River’s ability to predict where a blow will land or how a new foe will arrive moments before it happens. In Pitt’s case, it lends Achilles the aura of a god, of a warrior truly blessed by the Fates. In both circumstances, an artificial choreography is created – one that has nothing to do with the willpower and physical reaction of a real fight, but has everything to do with the power of dance to communicate elegance and myth.

All of these choreographies, before they get to the actors, are refined using stunt specialists. Watson’s choreography for Glau was developed with Bridget Riley. She wasn’t originally credited in the production – many stuntpeople often aren’t, despite being key to developing much of the choreography that makes it into the final product. We are lucky enough to have video of Riley’s original blocking for the Maidenhead fight. Please note that Riley is a professional stuntwoman and martial artist, and could beat the living snot out of Brad Pitt and anyone else mentioned in this article in a heartbeat. Except maybe Katharine Hepburn.


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The original scene takes advantage of Riley’s extensive martial arts skills, as well as a decent amount of wirework. Each shot is isolated to an individual encounter and stunt.

With Glau, the scene changes. She’s not able to perform some of the moves Riley helped develop, but Glau’s ability as a dancer does allow for the scene to be shot in longer takes than were originally planned. Like Achilles, she avoids attacks in her blind spot through preternatural anticipation. This isn’t an oversight in the choreography – like Simone Crane and Richard Ryan did for Troy, Ryan Watson developed individual choreography for each actor in Serenity. Nathan Fillion’s fight scenes opposite Chiwetel Ejiofor are altogether different. As Captain Mal, Fillion is a scrappy slugger, essentially just doing his best to get one more chance to punch the other guy in the face. He often uses misdirection to do so. As the nameless Operative, Ejiofor keeps everything directly in front of himself – he fights efficiently, letting his opponents’ wrap themselves up. He reacts with precise, cleanly defined motions. Glau is the only one who fights in that preternatural style; it’s a conscious artistic decision. Watch what I mean in the final version of the Maidenhead fight.


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So what’s my point, at the end of all of this? It’s that fight scenes aren’t just whether you use Kung Fu or Muay Thai or Krav Maga. Fight scenes can also communicate messages through their art. In Troy, the fight between Achilles and Hector ceases to be real – it becomes representative, a metaphor for the characters of these two men. Achilles is like an animal, circling around his opponent and taking a quick test bite at the beginning, and he is like a god, reacting to Hector’s attacks even as they happen.

Hector, on the other hand, is a man who doesn’t value combat, but does value effort. There’s a moment earlier in the film when Hector betrays the honor of a duel by defending his brother Paris (Orlando Bloom). He doesn’t do so because Paris is his brother; he does so because Paris – despite not being a warrior – still showed up for the duel and put forth his best effort. When Hector later faces Ajax, a warrior twice his size, Hector is victorious not by skill, but because of his effort. He’s clearly outmatched but he doesn’t give up.

In the lead-up to his fight with Achilles, both Hector and the audience know he will not make it out alive. Achilles is an animal. Achilles is a god. Hector is a good man doing his best. The fight choreography isn’t about Hector and Achilles. That choreography is about our constant struggle just to come up even against forces greater than ourselves. It’s about facing nature and fate and knowing that we can never come out on top, but that’s not going to stop us from trying anyway. It’s not because we think we’re better, but rather because the effort itself is honorable, and gives the struggle meaning. Hector is a man going to his death knowing exactly how he’ll face it – as the best version of himself. He is effort, which means nothing to Achilles or to nature or to destiny or to a god, but which carries meaning only to Hector himself.

Fight choreography can communicate as much as a dance, as much as any other form of art can in five minutes. It can give us that same artistic reaction – that same chill up our spines when it suddenly dawns on us what’s being said and the passion behind it – that a beautiful vista in Lord of the Rings can, that a costume from Moulin Rouge can, that an immaculately designed Kubrick set can, that a line from a poem, or a phrase from a song, or an emotion caught in a photograph can.

Fight choreography isn’t just people beating each other up. Stuntwork isn’t just people diving in front of explosions. Fight choreography and stuntwork can be art, and the people behind it think of it as art, communicate in the same way that other artists do. Start to look at these scenes that way, and you’ll start discovering things about film that you never even thought were possible.

Troy
Stunt Coordinator – Simon Crane
Sword Master – Richard Ryan
“Achilles” – Brad Pitt
“Hector” – Eric Bana

Serenity
Fight Choreographer – Ryan Watson
Stunt Development – Bridget Riley
“River Tam” – Summer Glau