Movie Review: Fury (2014)- An Unrelenting Barrage of War Brutality That Misses the Mark Due to Self-Important Ethics and a Collision of Thematic Intent

fury1“Ideals are peaceful, history is violent,” states the disillusioned yet stubbornly principled Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) somewhere in the drawn out middle of writer/director David Ayer’s new film Fury, a sentiment that carries with it a promise that what follows in this casually brutal and slightly trite World War II epic is violence pure and simple. Let it be forever known with excessive bell ringing that war is indeed hell or rather it’s an unrelenting, unfeeling, and unsparing barrage of physical pain, mental anguish, and idealistic destruction that can turn any soft spoken pacifist into a bitter, callous killing machine. It’s either a remnant of the Vietnam obsession or an existing anger of post-9/11 war that seems to make war time condemnation such a prevalent and consistent theme in war epics since they all seem intent on removing any semblance of heroism from their narratives as we’re put through excessive turmoil and apathetic posturing that seems to define war movie protagonists. It’s not to say this isn’t an important contemplation but it’s become so commonplace and self-important that even earnestly made, well-acted, and occasionally haunting films such as Fury just get lost in the wasteland of deconstructed war character studies. Longtime Hollywood screenwriter and occasional action director David Ayer leads this viscerally detailed account of a tank crew during the last month of World War II after souls have been crushed, wills have been tested, and endurance tests have all but run out inevitably creating a film that might have some contemplative value and moral weight but loses itself in a feeling of desperate pomposity and an occasionally convenient script. At its best moments Fury encapsulates that sense of brotherhood in the face of duress within its iron clad artillery walls that defines most classic platoon pictures but unfortunately it sacrifices an opportunity for compelling emotionality for pure gore-spattered vigorous visuals that are grimy, muddy, and bloody. There might be some sort of soul existing within the cold metallic exterior of Fury but that inevitably gets lost in a film’s clearly desperate attempt to make an important film rather than focusing on making a good one.

David Ayer has been trained in the conventionality of screenwriting being a mid-90s inductee in the Hollywood scene and he has penned numerous action films ranging from the claustrophobic challenges of submarine warfare in U-571 and multiple corrupt cop actioner including Training Day, Dark Blue, and of course the surprisingly effective End of Watch. On its detailed metallic narrative exterior Ayer’s script for Fury resembles practically every World War II film that’s been made over the last 70 years in basic story structure since it shares the themes, character archetypes, and familiar building of events that makes them all incredibly similar showing his trained conventionality. What Ayer tries to do differently here is add within the structure a modern moral projection towards a different time and place in order to create a universal criticism on war time conflict that’s increasingly bitter, intentionally unforgiving, and undeniably harrowing. Fury takes place in the last month of World War II in deep enemy German territory following Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier, the seemingly neutered in exuberance but balanced for humanity alter ego of Brad Pitt’s Lieutenant Aldo Rain from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and his tight, tired, and embittered tank crew consisting of a religious gunner named Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LeBeouf), a tactical driver named Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena), and a crass weapons loader named Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal). After their assistant driver is killed they are assigned a replacement in inexperienced idealist Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) who represents the script’s simpleminded desire to give us the stages of war from naïve idealism to debilitating grief to resentful passion to bitter acceptance. Though all of the scenes carefully build towards visceral action sequences there are oddly convenient scenes, such as one between Norman and Grady as they dissolve their tension with one mere apology, and an egregious uneven middle section that plays as a misguided and ineffective mimicking of the cut French Plantation scene in Francis Ford Coppila’s Apocalypse Now. However, despite some minor narrative distractions and Ayer’s moral self-importance Fury does embody some grasp of the human soul that comes out tattered and torn from the impact of war mostly due to the carefully executed build-up to the gripping action sequences.

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An unmistakable element that’s part of the claustrophobic tank experience is simply the noise of being in a tank from the rattling of the metallic insides, the pounding of the cannon, and incessant grinding of the tank’s continuous track on the muddy terrain. Fury’s creative choices for gritty visual and engrossing sound are what gives it a sense of authenticity beyond the overly done character archetypes that weigh the film down such as of Brad Pitt’s “Wardaddy” as the grizzled rite of passage making War veteran or Logan Lerman’s innocent doe eyed idealist who needs a harsh awakening to life’s realities. Instead of finding genuine emotionality in the characters Ayers instead focuses in on the fatalism of war as spectacle by collaborating with his End of Watch cinematographer Roman Vasyanov’s whose elegant camerawork gives the violence a heightened sense of brutality. As it was with End of Watch the action sequences throughout Fury possess a thrilling adoption of brute force and detailed execution that builds with risk heavy foreboding thanks to Ayers admiration for male-centric gun playing that often times results in fatal consequence. German tanks were entirely superior to American tanks a stated in the black slated opening of Fury but that comes to a thrilling nerve wracking reality when a Tiger tank battle ensues where maneuverability and timing are what is needed in order to survive the dangerous cat and mouse game that unfolds deep within enemy territory. And as it is with most fatalist war features Fury builds to an imminent self-sacrifice conclusion that while thrilling doesn’t necessarily stand on equal footing with its grand superior predecessor Saving Private Ryan. Of course staying within typical narrative convention and focusing in on the technical aspects without proper character consideration inevitably weakens the entire film’s aim for potent war time criticism and emotional connection. If Fury was an actual tank it wouldn’t be a superior model of technical precision and a masterful command from the inside for it’s really just a malleable tin made up of old bromides and clichés that is guided by capable performers who lack the proper motivation to be true self-sacrificing soldiers.

Inside the tank at the center of the film Fury is the brotherhood of men that are part of what appears to more of a dysfunctional family of renegades rather than the understanding platoons that you are introduced in most of the commonplace war time features. This works to the film’s strength at times but also exposes some unconsidered weaknesses in character where likability, or at least a basic tenant of understanding towards a character’s predilections, is very important. Take character actor Jon Bernthal’s portrayal of gun loader “Coon-Ass” Travis who becomes increasingly unpleasant in an almost unintelligible way where his apathetic badgering on matters of death seems to be a tad overly done in his desensitized attitudes of violence and war. Bernthal is a capable character actor and yet here he seems strained for conviction as his Travis flips violently from one extreme to another where he’ll be consoling poor Norman one minute and aggressively teasing him the next. The teasing and aggressive poking are shared characteristics of this tank brotherhood as it seems to be a sort of hazing rite of passage for Logan Lerman’s innocent and changing Norman Ellison. Lerman has proven himself as a somewhat charming presence in past pictures such as the Percy Jackson franchise or as inconsequential side characters in 3:10 to Yuma and Noah, but when it comes to displaying truly dramatic chops like with Perks of Being a Wallflower he tends to lack believability as he does here in Fury. Really though it’s supposed to be Brad Pitt’s show as he attempts to give his best rendition of fatherly war figures of the past, much like the reservation of Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan or the hardened Willem Dafoe in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. Generally this performance tank is confidently operated with performances that generate a minor sense of emotional authenticity that goes beyond the conventional tenants of the script, which includes a surprising display from Shia LaBeouf where surprise can be generated from zero expectation.

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War as hell has been a truism since the dawn of time even before movies started becoming moral loudspeakers towards the obvious reflections on man-made violence and the emptiness of violent conflict, which is a theme that Fury adopts and proudly shines at every waking moment of its slightly strained running time. Writer/director David Ayer wishes to combine his fascination for the conventional platoon pictures of old Hollywood with a modern moral posturing that seems to ignite a rather uneven display of war time criticism and ritualistic heroic self-sacrifice that seems to be a disservice to the general grim tone that is featured throughout the film. One haunting theme seems to detract from the other with Boyd warning Norman early on to “wait till you see what a man can do to another man” while an hour later emphatically proclaims “best job I ever had.” And perhaps this is an intentional dichotomy for an anti-war message but that doesn’t exist without proper emotional reflection and narrative investment into that message, which doesn’t occur in David Ayer’s film. Though Fury is at times inconsistent in tone, where its male-centric rite of passage bravado messily collides with Ayer’s moral high horse, there are moments of action and character authenticity that are featured in a way that you will tend to linger on the brutality of war emphasized through bloody technical achievement. Fury wishes to be a great film that postures an ethical stance on the horrors of war but in its obsession with gore misses the poeticism of Sam Peckninpah’s violent achievements and male-centric sacrifice in The Wild Bunch while also missing the mark on anti-war condemnation from the likes of Oliver Stone (Platoon) and Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now).

Grade: C+

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