Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Fury will close the 2014 London Film Festival
"Ayer’s film doesn’t really have the script or plot to back up all the hardware."

Undeniably sharing DNA with the aesthetically influential Spielberg film Saving Private Ryan David Ayer’s brutal, deafening war drama Fury adopts a slightly different perspective - that of a tank crew slugging their way through the muddy fields of Western Europe in the dying days of the Second World War. The film doesn’t exploit the claustrophobic potential of the cramped confines of the MM4 Sherman Tank (the main Allied battle tank by this point in the war) as much as the 2009 tank drama Lebanon did, nor does it really function effectively as an anti-war polemic despite all the numbing grittiness. Instead, it falls clumsily in between all these stools, firing off a tonne of bullets as it does so.

The title of the film actually refers to the name of the US army tank that is the home for battle-hardened Sergeant Collier (Brad Pitt) and his motley crew Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena), Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf) and Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal). All are filthy, sweaty and sport a look of permanent exhaustion. They are also stereotypical of the genre: with LaBeouf's character minded to avoid profanity as the bible-thumper, whereas Bernthal is the hyper-aggressive lunkheaded Alpha male from the Deep South. Pitt’s Sergeant “Wardaddy” is more mysterious, being part father figure, part detached observer of man’s cruelty, and part war machine. As with Ayer’s earlier films like End Of Watch, the dynamics of men are a central concern and he deserves some credit for giving their interactions a rough and naturalistic feel, and for being willing to paint them as genuinely unlikeable and, in some cases, criminal.

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Fury opens with Pitt and crew still reeling from the bloody death of their assistant driver in a recent battle that has stranded their tank. These opening minutes allow Ayer and cinematographer Roman Vasyanov to showcase their flair at crafting a Dante-esque hellscape of machine-driven war, as the camera pans over a smoke-drenched, quieted battlefield crowded with wrecked vehicles, the metal chassis blossomed into strange new shapes by heat and projectiles. A white horse cuts through the smog, a moment of strange beauty interrupted by Pitt’s savage knife ambush of the Nazi rider.

Following this, Ayer takes us inside the tank as the crew bitch and moan, while nevertheless operating smoothly as a unit to get the battered Fury’s batteries kickstarted. The tank interior is a visually arresting set. Presumably historically accurate with its high level of detail, it seems impossible that five men could have fit in this during wartime. Watching the men operate within its confines, reverting to a strange “tank lingo” when in combat, is undeniably interesting and there is a palpable sense of the home this miserable rustbucket has become to them. The tank is a double-edged weapon: it protects the men, but it is uncomfortable to live in and its bulk makes them a highly visible magnet for anti-tank weapons. Its thin armour, poorly-shielded ammo stockpile and tight confines put them all at risk from one lucky shot. This film accurately depicts Allied tanks throughout as inferior in gun and armour strength to the Germans, and a good deal of tension is generated from these vulnerabilities and the lack of visibility offered by the vision slits and periscopes.

But Ayer’s film doesn’t really have the script or plot to back up all the hardware. The plot that plays out once Fury’s new rookie assistant driver - Norman - is assigned to the crew, largely runs on a predictable “rookie is blooded in the cauldron of war” track. Norman is a fumbling new recruit with no training. Over time, as Fury is assigned to take town after town, facing ambushes from German anti-tank guns, tanks and infantry armed with effective anti-tank propelled grenades, the rookie is pushed further into despair at the brutality even though he grows in effectiveness. Through it all, Wardaddy watches over him, encouraging him in one graphic scene to execute an SS (the Nazi Elite Stormtroopers) prisoner, but later takes on a more fatherly role and nudges the new crew member to seize the chance to sleep with an attractive young German girl whose house they are quartered in, and who Wardaddy has to shield from the lascivious attentions of his drunk crew. Pitt is perhaps emblematic of this film’s confused tone, his character appears at times to be some wearily detached commentator on the devastation who is holding on to his principles with ragged fingernails, at other times he seems to want to “blood” Norman into effectiveness by forcing his complicity in crimes. Maybe Pitt is supposed to be playing this kind of character as divisive and confusing, but either way, the script doesn’t offer him or anyone else anything stimulating to work with except broad strokes.

This film also wants to have its cake and eat it with the choreographed battle sequences, which have all the technical virtuosity of CGI-enhancement and a thumping audio mix as one would expect today with these types of films. One particular tank-on-tank engagement that sees Pitt and his four-tank platoon forced to rush a superior German Tiger tank through a smoke screen - a brawl which degenerates into a circling match with each tank trying to get on each other’s flank - is a genuinely visceral thrill. There is mud, blood and grease to spare here, with tank and crew looking suitably lived in, and there are numerous “horrors of war” moments offered up to the viewer, from bodies being crushed under tank tracks to severed human faces having to be scraped out of tank interiors.

But by the time final five against 500 final battle takes place, the film seems to have shed all sense of realism, with enemies stupidly running into Fury’s line of fire, and the Germans conveniently giving the tank crew time to weep for each other and make final speeches in the heat of combat. The macho, heroic last stand set-up feels like a death knell for the film’s muddled attempts to portray war as some muddy, unglamorous mess. Beyond the obvious “war is hell”, Fury ends up being a film that doesn’t seem to know what else it wants to say or how to say it. A case of more bullets than brains.

Reviewed on: 20 Oct 2014
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Fury packshot
A battle-hardened sergeant takes a crew on a deadly mission in the last days of the Second World War.
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London 2014

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