Review: Fury (2014)

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Director: David Ayer
Screenwriter: David Ayer
Cast: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal, Jason Isaacs, Xavier Samuel & Scott Eastwood
Runtime: 134 min // Certificate: 15

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p1xli7OTE_0]

Unless you view American war films via the prism of propaganda through which they have been produced, it is very difficult to judge them critically. Films about World War 2, in which the heroic Americans ride in in their tanks and save the day, beating the evil Nazis in the process, are a staple of post-war cinema, and they’re more often than not taken at face value, as though they’re purely historical dramas. This, I think, misses the point. War films aren’t about specific wars inasmuch as they’re about the very concept of war – what it is, what it does, and what it represents – and David Ayer’s Fury slots comfortably into this mould.

Set in the dying days of WW2, with the Nazis in retreat and the Americans moving into Germany, the film tells the story of five men in a tank as they journey through the perilous homeland of their enemy. Hitler’s advance into Europe has failed and the Nazis are at their most disparate, desperate and dangerous. Total war has been declared, and every German citizen is expected to fight to help keep the Aryan cause alive. Enter Don Collier, nicknamed “Wardaddy” (Pitt; Fight Club), and his crew, whose task it is to travel through Germany and either capture or kill any Nazis who get in their way. Armed to the teeth in their tank – named Fury – the men are shaken to the core by the sudden death of their assistant driver, who is replaced by a young Army typist and newcomer to the war, Norman (Lerman; Noah) just before the crew embark on their most dangerous mission yet.

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Obviously influenced by films like Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, Ayer’s film is all about the grim, uncompromising reality of life on the battlefield. From the very first scene, in which Wardaddy emerges from his tank to take stock of the seemingly endless mass of bodies that lies before him, you know this isn’t going to be a film that pulls it punches, and the deeper the crew go into Germany, the darker and more brutal the film becomes. Death, destruction and devastation litter the film, and Ayer (End of Watch) has no qualms about killing characters off without a moment’s notice, such is the certainty of death in war.

What begins as uncompromising, however, eventually descends into an uncritical and almost aimless mass of ceaseless and harrowing misery. Ayer’s film, though obviously fierce and violent, hits its peak about halfway through, before becoming too self-consciously morbid. Everything that happens – every death, every conversation, and every battle sequence – serves the same goal; to extol the gruesome virtues of war. The deeper into Germany that these characters go, the worse their situation becomes, to the point that Ayer loses grasp of the narrative and simply wants to shock and horrify the audience.

Now, on the one hand, this is the film’s great success. For over two hours it gets under your skin, forces you to peer into the true horrors of war and demands that you put your values to one side. As Pitt’s character says “ideals are peaceful but history is violent”. Now, let’s be clear, there’s a lot of truth in that statement. Alas, Ayer does absolutely nothing with it. He accepts it as a statement of fact and then moves on. There’s no criticism of that truism which means that the film descends into little more than a simple fetishisation of the actual concept of war. People die, lives are ruined, and Ayer has nothing to say about it.

This results in a contradiction that it is difficult to overcome. If Fury is about the cruel realities of war, then it doesn’t do anything to actually criticise those realities. It asks the audience to accept them, and that’s a very difficult thing to do. Like Lone Survivor, Fury doesn’t have to ask us to support the central characters because they’re obviously the good guys. The enemies are the Nazis, so the decision is an obvious one. Nonetheless, with the exception of Lerman’s character none of the men in the tank feel like fully-formed individuals. They’re just… not Nazis. They’re brutish and masculine and aggressive, and in a number of ways they’re quite loathsome, but they’re the good guys and you either support them or you don’t. Supporting them, however, doesn’t equate to caring about them, and that is where the film starts to collapse around itself.

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Fury is an admirable piece of work in that it gets to the root of how perilous war can be, but there’s little going on beneath the surface. Strip away the thrilling action sequences and the overindulgent violence, and what you’re left with is a film that, while visually impressive and very well acted by everyone involved (yes, even Shia LaBeouf…), doesn’t really say anything. Maybe that’s the point, and maybe that’s okay. After all, Ayer didn’t set out to produce a thesis on whether or not war, for lack of a better word, is good; he simply set out to tell a visceral story about five men in a tank. In this respect, he’s done a damn fine job. Alas, I think the film needs more. For all of the violence, the brutality and the desolation, there’s a hole at the heart of Fury where both story and meaning ought to be.

Ayer’s Fury is a solid and at times very distressing action film, and I admire the director for his uncompromising approach to battle. I just wish he hadn’t been such a passive observer to the story he was actually telling, as it results in a film that feels oddly adrift from the war it’s supposed to be portraying.

★★★

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