As an illustration of just how brutal and dehumanizing war can be, the new tank drama Fury is effectively harrowing. The movies are — and have long been — full of death and destruction, but what we’re usually shown are intact bodies dropping with, at worst, a spurt of red mist. A couple months ago, The Expendables 3 showed the extreme of this by even removing most traces of blood from its shameless orgy of pristine violence.
If nothing else, Fury goes against this troubling grain, reminding us that in war, death usually isn’t clean. Especially not when tanks are involved. Body parts separate, people scream in agony, and the witnesses to these gruesome sights are filled with a trauma and rage that perpetuates the desire to kill and to avoid a similar fate. Plenty of war movies demonstrate similar things; Fury is one of the more successful ones.
The film also contains prominent themes of brotherhood, as we follow a team of five misfits in their tank, which serves as their home, their shelter, their office and the glue that keeps them together. As a family drama, Fury is a lot less successful. The five main soldiers are more ‘types’ than layered human beings. Brad Pitt is the hardened leader who’s seen some shit. Shia LaBeouf, sans bag on head, is religious (I’m fairly certain every one of his lines has something to do with either God or the Bible), The Walking Dead‘s Jon Bernthal is an obnoxious but loyal hick and Michael Pena is… well, he’s Mexican.
And finally there’s Logan Lerman (or as I like to call him, “slightly better version of Aaron Taylor-Johnson”), who joins the team early on as a replacement for their freshly-killed gunner. He stands in for us, the newbie who’s never even been inside a tank before, unprepared for the horrors of war and dead-set on maintaining his humanity, his morality and of course his mortality. All of the these actors are talented, there’s no doubting that. While Pitt is just riffing on his earlier Aldo Raine with a grittier twist (he never says “Nah-tzees”), he still brings an intensity to the proceedings and acts as a fitting father figure for Lerman, who is fairly convincing as someone who would rather be anywhere else.
Acting talent only takes them so far, as their characters are woefully one-dimensional and as a result, so too are their relationships. Writer/director David Ayer’s last film, the great End of Watch (seriously, go watch it), was so engaging in large part thanks to the chemistry between its two leads, played by Pena and Jake Gyllenhaal. Like that movie, there are some great humorous moments to cut through the often-oppressive atmosphere. But with Fury’s five brothers instead of just two, Ayer can’t quite find a way to make all of them interact in interesting, complex ways. They’re just five stereotypes forced together, and there isn’t much tension or engrossing interplay between them.
This is most painfully obvious in the film’s centerpiece, a very long sequence that brings the action to a screeching halt and places our heroes in a small apartment in a German town with two women who don’t speak a lick of English. This scene, which plays out like a subdued stage play, is ambitious for a movie like this but serves little purpose because the suspense that Ayer clearly intends is almost completely absent. Without the risk of imminent bodily harm, this stretch was the film’s one great opportunity to really flesh out the characters, but we learn very little about them that we didn’t already know.
As was the trouble with Lone Survivor, Ayer seems to be operating under the faulty notion that we’ll automatically feel more attached to the characters if we simply sit with them for long enough. That simply isn’t how it works; they need to feel real and likable as well, and usually neither of these criteria are met. Instead, this section only makes even more glaringly obvious the script’s lack of depth. The one positive thing about this bizarre midpoint episode is that it breaks up the tremendously well-crafted battle scenes. And when we finally leave the cramped apartment behind and head back into the fray, I couldn’t be happier for the film to get going again.
Because ultimately, the external obstacles the crew faces — and by that, I mean Nazis — make for a much more exciting movie. The action is exceptionally well-shot, masterfully choreographed and surprisingly explosive. Bullets appear red and green, like lasers in Star Wars, but this odd effect helps keep track of who’s shooting and from where, and doesn’t take away from the authentic feel of the skirmishes.
The tanks move with an accurate sense of weight (a testament to the practical effects employed instead of CGI), but the sluggish movement of the vehicles never slows the sense of urgency. If anything, it builds the tension in a way that no fast-paced special effects-driven movie can. I would also be doing a disservice if I didn’t also point out that the potent score by last year’s Oscar winner Stephen Price (for Gravity) also accentuates the ferocity of the combat.
As I mentioned, the movie is uncompromising in its violence, but the bloodlust exhibited by our heroes is a little troubling. But, hey, I guess Nazis are the only type of human beings it’s a-okay to enjoy seeing violently killed in the cinema (at least, the movie seems morally at ease with it). It’s never clear whether Ayer is condemning Brad Pitt’s brutality or asking audiences to revel in it, though this could be intentional. I also picked up on an even more troubling attitude towards women, but I suppose I can give the movie the benefit of the doubt, since it could technically also be an intentional comment on the overly-macho wartime atmosphere (though I didn’t really get that impression while watching it).
The final act of the film, which isn’t a spoiler because the trailers have focused almost entirely on it, has our crew trapped inside their broken-down tank, facing down hundreds of SS troops. This scene is incredibly tense and emotionally powerful in a way that the rest of the film can’t match, and a great impression to end on. It’s a shame that the entire film couldn’t keep a consistent momentum or a throughly convincing reason to care about the characters. Even if it falters as a ‘band of brothers’ drama and drags quite severely in the middle, Fury still excels as a fierce, no-holds-barred war film with a talented cast and superlative battle sequences.
Score: 3.5 out of 5