It is April, 1945. The second world war draws to an agonizingly bloody close on German soil. Materializing out of a haze of sunlight and gun smoke, a German officer atop a weathered white horse trudges through a scorched battlefield, floating in silence like a ghost amongst the dead bodies and burning debris. There's a sad beauty to this image that greets us at the onset of Fury, steeped in an eerie serenity that the film's title does not suggest.
Naturally, this moment ends in an abrupt and brutal fashion more typical to the rest of this rockem' sockem' war story. Written and directed by David Ayer, many of whose previous films and screenplays (End of Watch, Harsh Times, Training Day) have been gritty studies in rock-hard masculinity, Fury follows the perilous travails of a tank unit as it pushes the Allied advance deeper into enemy territory in the dying days of WWII.
Brad Pitt headlines as Sgt. Don 'Wardaddy' Collier, commander of a 30-ton M4 Sherman tank (the eponymous Fury, whose moniker is scrawled across the cannon barrel as if the bow of a ship) and its testosterone-oozing crew. This includes Shia LaBeouf as its devout trigger man, Michael Peña as its empathetic driver, and Jon Bernthal as its certifiable mechanic. No, not “certified”, “certifiable”.
Even though Sgt. Collier warns greenhorn gunman Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman in fine form) not to grow too attached to anybody, it's clear that this band of brothers is as much a family as any kin they may have back home, and 'Wardaddy' is their aptly named patriarch. Pitt's hard-boiled star charisma is an apt choice to portray this character, who keeps his physical and emotional scars as private as possible; His leathery face exuding weariness, rather than excitement, at the prospect of each upcoming battle.
But character work as finely tuned as that is ultimately drowned out by the gory onslaught that this movie fires at us. Fury has nothing new to say about war, and it still manages to be an overstatement. It's not that war films should shy away from graphic violence. Saving Private Ryan, for instance – a staple of the genre that Ayer attempts to evoke at times – appropriately uses the grisly horrors of war to sobering effect.
But the violent scenes of Fury – shot, edited and scored in the vein of traditional pulse-racing action cinema – might be more analogous to war-glorifying pictures like The Dirty Dozen. I suppose on that level, one purely of entertainment, it's perfectly fine. But when all the burning bodies and severed limbs and decapitations are made in the service of shock value thrills, it tends to undermine the “war is hell” message one hopes this movie is trying to convey.
In all fairness, the quality of the filmmaking merits a higher rating than the overall film itself. Roman Vasyanov's cinematography is quite spectacular in places, sharply capturing the dour detail of Andrew Menzies' war-torn sets and the claustrophobic interiors of the tank. Ayer also earns some extra credit for using real Sherman tanks on his shoot instead of CG decoys.
Special mention has to go to the imposing sound mix by three-time Oscar winner Paul N.J. Ottosson, which blends the low rumble of thunder, the distant booms of artillery fire, and the bassy tones of Steven Price's score so seamlessly that it soon becomes impossible to differentiate them! It makes the whole film a dense aural experience that aught to be heard in a theatre with the best audio system you can find.
Still, Nazis or not, the sights and sounds of people being gruesomely killed over and over and over again eventually wears thin. I guess that's why they call it “overkill”? There's little reprieve from the excess, save for a lengthy second-act sequence in which Sgt. Collier attempts to enjoy a civilized breakfast with two petrified women in a captured German town.
This will likely be a make-or-break scene for many a viewer: While some may appreciate this respite from the rough-and-tumble tank warfare, its treatment of the script's only two female characters (actresses Anamaria Marinca and Alicia von Rittberg, written in merely as objects to illuminate and satisfy the needs of the intruding men) simply cannot justify its inclusion.
The insensitivity to the female gender in this uncomfortably long chapter of the film is made even more nauseating by its cruel conclusion. I'll not divulge it here so as not ruin it for anyone, although I struggle to imagine how a scene this off-putting can be ruined any further.
Even worse yet are the mixed messages Fury seems to be delivering about the other gender. We watch young Norman receive a terrifying and galvanizing crash course in manhood and heroism... if you honestly believe that mowing down hundreds of enemy soldiers with a machine gun makes you a man, or a hero.
The film's closing line of dialogue and striking final composition leave that question open to viewer interpretation: It would be more assuaging to read it cynically; to believe that Ayer is aiming to disparage the notion of valour through violence with an ironic juxtaposition. However, the swell of Steven Price's score and the subtle stoicism on Lerman's face tilt the balance of that ambiguous finale in a disquieting direction.
However realistic Fury's depictions of this savage time may be, it's failing is in how it paints the picture: Brutally authentic, but with irresponsible grandeur. How can an audience truly respect the hell of this war, when every protagonist so believably recites that killing other men is the best job they ever had?
** out of ****
** out of ****