Brad Pitt, David Ayer, Drama, Germany, Jon Bernthal, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, Review, Shia LaBeouf, Tanks, US Army, World War II
D: David Ayer / 134m
Cast: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal, Jason Isaacs, Jim Parrack, Brad William Henke, Kevin Vance, Xavier Samuel, Anamaria Marinca, Alicia von Rittberg
April 1945, Germany. A battered, disabled tank lies amidst the carnage of a recently fought battle. Its men – Collier (Pitt), Swan (LaBeouf), Garcia (Peña), and Travis (Bernthal) – are battle-hardened and weary but they have an unshakeable bond. Under Collier’s tough, uncompromising leadership they’ve survived countless skirmishes, encounters and battles. Now, with the war nearing its end, they are all looking forward to peacetime.
Travis gets their tank – named Fury – moving again and they head back to base. There, much to Collier’s disgust, they are assigned a new driver/gunner, Ellison (Lerman); Collier is disgusted because Ellison is too young, he’s only been in the Army for eight weeks and he knows nothing about tanks. Introduced to the rest of the crew, Ellison is treated with disdain and told to take a bucket of hot water and clean out the inside of the tank. When he does, he finds the partial remains of the previous driver/gunner. Meanwhile, Collier and three other tank commanders are given a mission to meet up with Baker Company and from there take over a small town.
On the way to the rendezvous, Ellison’s inexperience causes the death of several men including the lieutenant (Samuel) who was leading them. Now led by Collier, the convoy carries on and they meet up with Baker Company and their commanding officer, Captain Waggoner (Isaacs). Before seizing the town, Waggoner needs the tanks to flush out a German unit that has several dozen US troops pinned down in a field. Fury and the other tanks get the job done, but Ellison’s inexperience nearly causes more casualties. When the fight is over, Collier tries to make Ellison kill a captured German soldier, putting a gun in his hand and telling him to “do his job”, which is to kill Nazis. Ellison refuses but Collier puts his hand over the young man’s hand and pulls the trigger. Ellison is horrified by it all but it proves to be a turning point, and when the nearby town is taken he is less nervous and is able to despatch the Germans without feeling too sick or nervous.
With the town taken, Collier and Ellison investigate a building where they’ve seen a woman peering from a window. They find the woman, Irma (Marinca) and her niece Emma (Rittberg). While Collier washes up, Ellison takes Emma into the bedroom and clearly attracted to each other, they make love. Later, while the four are about to have a meal, the rest of Fury’s crew barge in and spoil things, before orders are received to report to Captain Waggoner. He tells Collier and the other tank commanders that there is a nearby crossroads that needs holding because of a large German troop movement that’s heading in that direction. But on their way there, the tanks find themselves under attack crossing a large field, and very soon the whole mission is in danger of failing.
After the less than impressive Sabotage (2014), writer/director Ayer returns with a movie that paints a portrait of extreme heroism under one of the most difficult of environments, and with a keen eye for detail that grounds both the action and the characters. It’s a challenging piece of moviemaking and provides a reminder of just how awful tank warfare could be.
And yet, Fury is a curious mix of the heroic and the mundane. Ayer’s script paints each man as a distinct individual – Collier as noted above, Swan as religiously minded, Garcia as more carnally oriented, Travis as a bigoted animal, Ellison as a callow liability (at first) – but it doesn’t take the time to explore or delve into those characters any further than those broad brush strokes allow. Collier speaks fluent German but the reason for this is never revealed, leaving the audience wondering if it’s part of a back story that was excised from the final script, or if it’s just a case of Screenwriting Expediency 101, a way to keep the crew ahead of the Germans without them having to work too hard to get there. Ellison is the only character who gets a story arc, and while his initial shock is well presented, though predictable given his introduction, when he does take to killing Nazis, all of a sudden he’s enjoying it. The change in attitude is too quick, and is an example of Ayer’s script downplaying motivation in favour of the next big action sequence.
The extended sequence in the apartment of Irma and Emma is another case in point where Ayer seems to be scratching the surface of an issue, highlighting the essential need, even in wartime, for people to hold on to their innate humanity. Collier and Ellison treat both women with the utmost respect but when the rest of the crew bundles in creating tension around the table and being hostile and objectionable, the tone shifts uncomfortably and Travis in particular is allowed to behave as if social manners were alien to him (he later apologises to Ellison but it’s not in the least convincing – if it were to happen in real life it would appear forced and contrived). The whole sequence becomes uneven and any message that Ayer was aiming for becomes lost in the telling. He then adds a layer of tragedy that speaks of the callous nature of war but which, for the viewer, will only come across as an unnecessary twist in the tale.
With so many apparent flaws in the screenplay, and with its shifting tone proving hard to pin down, Fury presents a problem for the viewer in that it’s a movie that attempts to take a snapshot of one part of what happened in World War II and to make it resonate beyond that snapshot. This is almost a timepiece, a movie where the overall picture is lost in the mist and shadow that permeates the fields and roads that the tanks travel through. It’s not a bad approach as such, but without that wider focus, Fury limits itself to being solely about the men inside a tank, and with no real effort to expand on their characters, it becomes a snapshot with no context.
Screenplay issues notwithstanding, the movie is on firmer ground with its action scenes, making the tank skirmishes urgent and vital, and deftly playing up the cramped conditions under which the crew operate, making a virtue of the economy of movement needed to load and fire the shells (try and count how many times we see Swan’s foot press down on the firing pedal). These scenes are impressively shot and edited together by Roman Vasyanov, and Jay Cassidy and Dody Dorn respectively, and offer a few heart-stopping moments along the way. But Ayer then settles for a final showdown between Fury and the advancing German troops that lifts action beats from every direct-to-video war movie you’ve ever seen, and which sacrifices credibility for the kind of careless heroics that undermines (and overturns) everything that’s gone before.
On the whole, Fury isn’t a bad movie per se, it’s sadly a movie that never quite realises its full potential. It does feature some very good performances however, and these raise up the movie when it most needs it. Pitt is as intense and commanding as ever, dominating every scene he’s in and making it difficult for the audience to concentrate on anyone else. But matching him – thankfully – is Lerman, putting in a career best performance that quickly obliterates any embarrassing memories of him in the Percy Jackson movies or The Three Musketeers (2011). As Ellison grows up on screen so too does Lerman, showing a range and a conviction that’s eluded him up until now. It’s a pleasure to watch him match the likes of Pitt and his co-stars, all actors who, on their day, can impress beyond all expectations. (Well, maybe not LaBeouf, but here he’s tolerable and seems required to stare fixedly at Pitt for most of the movie, but good luck with working out what emotion he’s meant to be feeling.)
Ayer is a talented individual, and he’s written some great scripts over the last fifteen years; he’s also making a name for himself as a director as well, but to date End of Watch (2012) remains his most fully realised project. Fury will definitely attract audiences initially but there’s a sense that, ironically, it won’t have “legs”. Which is a shame, as the movie could have been so much better had Ayer been more rigorous with his script.
Rating: 7/10 – slightly better than average but with enough problems to make viewing the movie more disappointing than not, Fury bristles with energy during its action scenes but otherwise is sluggish; one to see on the big screen though, and with one’s expectations firmly kept in check.
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