War is hell. Anyone who has seen a number of war films can surmise this. It’s the basic backbone of almost every war film not starring John Wayne or Captain America, and by this point you would think that we have learned that enough by now. But writer/director David Ayer, probably tired of writing L.A. cops for most of his career, thinks otherwise. With Fury, his second 2014 film after the risible Sabotage, Ayer doesn’t just think that we need to see more World War II soldiers diving into the muck. He wants to rub it in our faces until we’re left beaten and bruised afterwards. Also: bored from exhaustion.
Fury follows the crew of the titular Sherman tank as they ride through Germany in the last months of the war. Hitler and the Nazis are desperate enough to use every last strategy possible, including forcing women and children into the fray, and the Allies continue treading through the battered country in the face of superior firepower. One of Fury’s crew members has been killed in battle, so now they’re stuck with a young replacement barely out of grade school who hasn’t seen a day of combat experience.
Fury eschews a goal-oriented story in favor of observing these rough-hewn men jumping from battle to battle, where their only objective is to kill Nazis and survive by the skin of their teeth. If there’s something that can be commended about the characters, who are as thin as they come without playing into easy stereotypes, it’s that the film doesn’t shy away from showing the Americans look just as brutal in their tactics as the Nazis were. In one particularly uncomfortable scene, Brad Pitt’s “Wardaddy” breaks in Logan Lerman’s Norman by forcing the boy to shoot a surrendered German soldier in the back.
“Wardaddy,” who is willing to win at any cost, walks a line between immoral and heroic in Pitt’s hands, which is more than can be said for the rest of the tank crew, wasting actors Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead), Michael Peña (End of Watch), and a better-than-average Shia LaBeouf in one-dimensionally unlikable roles. Lerman, like most of his performances, is serviceable as the audience avatar without making too much of an impression. It’s hard to care about most of these people when Ayer seems to care more about how many ways he can turn the human body into mince meat.
Watching Fury is like watching Saving Private Ryan edited down to its bare violent scenes, and to his credit Ayer conjures up a couple of tank battles that rival the intense standoffs of Spielberg’s film. The three-on-one game of chicken is the highlight set piece, as the Americans have to outmaneuver the much stronger German tank in close quarters. Small details like the whistle of tank shells and the teamwork tactics employed show off the minutia of war that isn’t often seen in movies.
But the unrelentingly dark tone eventually becomes so overbearing that the violence soon enough turns from shocking to tiring. Without more engaging characters or worthwhile thematic weight, the relentlessness of it all turns the film into a one-note gore show. Steven Price’s overwrought score doesn’t help matters, especially in an “unexpected” death scene that can be predicted the moment you meet these characters. Subtlety isn’t in Ayer’s playbook, and his script works better when it’s focusing on the Pitt/Lerman dynamic or the life-and-death struggle of surviving against all odds rather than the atrocities of war. But at least it’s better than Sabotage.
FILM RATING: 5/10