The problem with the war film, like other genres loaded with cultural classics, is that comparison is inevitable. The reason Saving Private Ryan made more of a tidal wave than a splash was its avant garde cinema style and delicate dissection of patriotism that honors soldiers but warns against militarism. Steven Spielberg’s classic was everything the contemporary war film needed to be, and other than complaints that it’s heavy handed in its climax, it continues to be the standard. So when a film like David Ayer’s Fury rolls into theaters, one wonders its place. Is it a new perspective on war, either stylistically or through content? Is it, like The Hurt Locker, more a psychological thriller than the expected war movie? Sadly, Fury is neither of those things: it is a film that amounts to a remake in spirit, remixing tropes, scenes, and characters into a package as well-worn as the battle-worn soldiers that inhabit it.
Some may call this appraisal unfair, since Fury does have a unique ‘hook.’ This is the first film, to my knowledge, to spend its entirety dramatizing the grueling, terrible, life of a tank crew in a major war. This hook, however, fails to yield a fresh perspective. If any audience member has seen only a handful of classics, the only element of surprise is just how predictable it constantly proves itself to be—who dies, when, and how, can all be figured out minutes into the film. Obviousness is a curse it can’t break. It seemingly balks at reinvention; so, much like the unit that mans the tank from which the film gets its name, Fury lives or dies not by its inventiveness, but by its dependability and consistency on the battlefield. That is to say, Fury is a sturdy sort of film that colors inside the lines, but its grave error is mistaking what it is, a thoroughly reasonable war-action movie, for what it isn’t: a prestige picture.
Fury follows an American tank crew on their Odyssey-like adventures through Germany in World War II, facing off against German tanks that are better armored, have more powerful weapons, and are far more deadly. Under-equipped and relying on a new and inexperienced gunner (Logan Lerman) that’s an audience stand-in, Don Collier (Brad Pitt) leads his tank, Fury, to help the Allies make the final push in Germany. Fury is a gang-film, like The Dirty Dozen or The Wild Bunch, and the drama depends on the audience’s investment in the camaraderie of the five-man team, which also includes Boyd Swan (Shia LeBeouf), Grady Travis (Jon Bernthal), and Trini Garcia (Michael Peña). Shia LeBeouf gives his second strange accent of the year (his first is in Nymphomaniac), although he’s believable and reminds of his natural charisma onscreen. Pitt disappoints with a performance that’s merely adequate, although adequate for Brad Pitt is stellar for some. Peña’s fine and Lerman’s the real star, but Bernthal steals the spotlight with a showy, obnoxious, overacted performance that’s a gnawing distraction.
The cast’s chemistry lends a needed authenticity to the tank unit, but that only gets so far. Other than Lerman’s gunner, none of them have a characterization that goes beyond caricature. Fury’s ultimately an unfeeling film not because the cast doesn’t deliver, but because the characters are unchanging and psychologically narrow. The more the film strains for depth and meaning, the more heavy-handed it becomes. If Fury’s meant to be a survey of the horrors of war, look elsewhere.
Luckily, the action is tightly wound and focused on the gruesome actuality of combat. We are meant to feel every mortar shell detonated, every bullet piercing every soldier, and every sad loss of life. The sense of loss never comes close to war film classics, but Ayer has a keen instinct on when to hide the action and when to show it. The sadness of the death total is operationalized through his style. He conjures a deadly atmosphere of chaos before stepping back to clarify the toll battle has taken. Hand-held close ups are intercut with cleverly placed wide-shots of the battles, and the effect repeats the intensity of Ayer’s End of Watch. The set pieces are the film's highlight, and one that takes place in an open field is a perfect instance of action filmmaking. Dread and tension are patiently built until the canon sounds—literally and figuratively—and once it does, it’s ten minutes of relentless intensity. One set piece in particular, the tank battle in an open field, is an instant classic in the war scene pantheon.
The episodic structure, however, is a double-edged sword, never coalescing into a powerful narrative but also keeping things from getting stale. If one set piece or character beat doesn't work for you, Fury quickly will reinvent itself into a much different scenario. As said above, Fury plays spin the bottle with war movie tropes, borrowing scenes, characters, and shots. The effect is tiring, but largely borrows from the best. Most war films—such as Ryan and Apocalypse Now—follow the episodic pattern, and with reason. It's reliable, but strong screenwriters eventually show these tangential adventures as part of a single vision, where the audience eventually realizes it couldn’t see the war-beaten forest for the enflamed trees. But here there is no narrative catharsis: we’re left beaten, bruised, and exhausted, with cardboard cutout characters in a film fighting for greatness that can’t make it. I wish they did, since there’s enough in Fury to show the potential for all it could have been.
Please follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or RSS below: