David Ayer’s latest film Fury wants to be important. This desire is made glaringly obvious through the many exchanges on religion and morality that bounce around the inside of the film’s eponymous tank in thesame manner as German artillery shells bounce off it’s nigh invulnerable metallic skin (god or God, depending on your persuasion, has a favourable eye on Fury’s fortuitous crew). But just like the German ballistics that pepper the tank’s exterior, these underdeveloped exchanges slide right off, not offering any kind of emotional impact or hook to draw you into the material; a statement that sums up the entirety of Fury quite well.
Set in the closing days of World War II, Fury follows the five crew members of the little-tank-that-could. Brad Pitt ably portrays First Sergeant Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier, the chevron encrusted leader of a small tank battalion that has been tasked with taking the fight to the Germans on their home soil. After the inevitable loss of all the battalion’s tanks bar Fury, Wardaddy and his platoon must hold a crossroads against a horde of SS soldiers with a broken down tank and a couple of machine guns. Ayers uses Logan Lerman’s Norman ‘Machine’ Ellison as the audience’s ‘in’, and while some of the scenes showing Ellison’s transformation from clerk to killer are conceptually interesting, Lerman’s lack of gravitas and Ayer’s often cringe-worthy and maudlin dialogue detract from the experience, resulting in a character who is not entirely unlikable, but nonetheless not endearing enough to make us care about whether he ever leaves Germany in one piece.
Ayer favourite Michael Peña is back as machine-gunner Trini ‘Gordo’ Garcia and John Bernthal gives a convincing portrayal of the hick-bully in his character of ‘Coon Ass’ Travis, but they are characters we have seen before cut from a two-dimensional mould. Rounding out the crew is the utterly underwhelming Shia LaBeouf who seems to think that the twinkle of moisture in his eye is enough to portray a flesh and blood character with real emotions bubbling just under the surface rather than a vacuous celebrity trying to piece his career back together. The complexity of the characters within the tank is one of the film’s intrigues, right up to the point you think Ayer will begin digging into their layers and doesn’t, leaving you instead with caricatures instead of characters.
The film begins in the mud, the perspective we have come to expect from writer/director David ‘Training Day‘ Ayers to take. Even more than World War II films like Saving Private Ryan or the infinitely more nuanced The Thin Red Line, Fury wallows in the dirt and filth of war. Ayer and his cinematographer Roman Vasayanov have crafted a beautifully shot film that evokes war-torn Europe with stunning verisimilitude. Bottle green forests give way to grey and white villages, their streets smeared smeared with the dark crimson of blood and the deep brown of mud, the dun of the protagonists uniforms encrusted with more of each as the film reaches its fiery denouement. Realism in war films has become the gold standard, and on the surface, Ayer’s film strictly adheres to this doctrine, bu as the film slowly tracks its way to its finale at the crossroads Ayer begins to lose touch with reality. What could have been an inspired film about tank warfare jettisons the real in favour of the fantastic and saccharine as Fury and her crew mow down what seems like every German soldier left in Europe in 1945. This wouldn’t be a problem in something like Tarantino’s cathartic ‘Once Upon aTime’ approach to the war in Inglorious Basterds, but Ayer’s insistence on authenticity during the films opening stanzas means that he can’t have his cake and eat it too. By bending the physics of his film’s world Ayer loses a lot of faith from his audience.
War films have a rich pedigree among genre films, so much so that when a film like Fury is released one must question what it brings to the field, on the surface David Ayer’s film about a tank platoon facing off against the might of the German Panzer and Tiger tanks seems like an interesting twist on the formula; unfortunately what we get is a play-by-play of films we have seen before in the hands of a much less capable auteur than the likes of Malick, Spielberg and Tarantino that have come before him.
Review by Liam Kinkead