David Ayer is a filmmaker that doesn’t deal in half measures. Responsible for either writing or directing a string of absurdly hard edged street thrillers, Fury was the film that would finally pull the man out of his world’s where people shoot each other in the face for money and instead into one where people shoot each other in the face for their country and the hellish landscape of WWII seemed like the perfect place for Ayer to tap onto his questionable ability to help actors get into the headspace required to exist in the brutal worlds he creates. The problem is that in a lot of his directorial endeavors, his talent in creating characters and settings you can taste in the back of your throat doesn’t always guarantee that the stories that exist around them are always that compelling – his previous film, the scum coated Schwarzenegger thriller Sabotage was fine and future flicks Shine and Suicide Squad were both awkward mergings of grit and fantasy – but surely if anything is going to bring out the best in the guy, it’s going to be five malajusted dudes lock in a roaring tank.
It’s the dying days of World War II and as the Germans get pushed further and further back into their own country, the ones who fight back are more devout to Hitler’s unholy cause. Into this sludgey area rumbles Fury, an M4 Sherman tank and it’s oily crew of war-battered mental cases. Led by the steely-eyed Don “WarDaddy” Collier, the crew consists of bible thumping gunner Boyd Swan, driver Trini Garcia and growling loader Grady Travis and the crew have managed to survive the war as a team. However, the loss of their fifth member, Red, means that they’ll have to recruit and joining these obviously damaged men is the young and excruciatingly vunerable Norman Ellison, a staff typist who has no experience of war whatsoever.
Fury, along with the rest of the tank divisions, press on toward the nation’s capital hoping that they’ll not run into any of the German’s superior tanks, but Ellison’s innocence is rapidly eroded by having to ride in a deafening war machine with four psychopaths and there’s a very real danger that death from a Nazi’s bullet may be less damaging than the effect his crew mates are having on his sanity…
War is hell, so the math follows that war films sould be joyless, but even by that line of thinking, Fury is a massively heavy experience to wade through and Ayer seems to revel in this mercilessly cruel world he builds up around his immensely tired looking cast. Oh sure, Saving Private Ryan was hella brutal too and Omaha Beach still reigns supreme as the quintessential slice of cinematic war trauma, but where Spielberg was savvy enough to sprinkle moments of poignancy inbetween the horrors, Ayer doubles down on the movie’s crippling nastiness until you’re spotting the same thousand yard stare as the cast.
At first, the viciousness is genuinely affecting, one of the first sights we’re “treated” to is Brad Pitt’s Wardaddy repeatedly ventilating the skull of an SS officer with a knife while Ellison’s initial job is to peel the severed fucking face of the crew member he’s replacing off the dashboard of his seat and the various battles are genuinely exhilarating as we get to see all the various horrible things a Tank can do to the human biology.
The cast, while predictably looking as permanently shagged out as a seven year old forced to run a triathlon do good solid work, but it’s Ayer’s typically thuggish character traits that eventually derail the film as not a single one of these people are even remotely likeable. Now I understand that these men have been ripped apart emotionally again and again by the trauma of riding around during wartime in a 33 ton murder-machine and back in the 40’s men weren’t exactly keeping tabs on their toxic masculinity, but the film pitches these guys as homicidal bullies and a scene where they descend on the apartment of a woman and their daughter severs and connection you may have made with them entirely.
Brad Pitt enfuses WarDaddy with that red-eyed, world weariness he’s perfected since hitting middle age and the dependable trio of Jon Bernthal, Michael Pena and professional liability Shia Labeouf breathe life into these incredibly unlikable people but it’s former Percy Jackson Logan Lerman who has the thankless roll of being a decent man thrown into a hellscape where his morals could leave him as pulped as a wad of chewing gum in green fatigues. Everyone embodies their characters well (actually, in the case of the legitimately intimidating Bernthal, a little too well) but the relentless, crushing depression starts to wear on you and by the halfway point you aren’t particularly fussed if these guys live or die. Ayer’s leaden symbolism doesn’t help either; the tank breaks down literally at a crossroads where the characters have to decide to tackle the usual, final act suicide mission – but where other war movies have a bridge to protect or a whole town to liberate, Fury sees our guys literally take on around 200 troops while sitting in their broken tank in murky darkness. It’s hardly the thrilling redemption the film obviously thinks it is and the cast’s sacrifices are somewhat nullified by the fact that they’re as endearing as that violent drunk who always ruins Saturday nights in your favorite bar…
You can tell what the filmmakers are aiming for but the relentless two hours and 14 minutes of sheer gloom means they miss their target and you eventually get worn down quicker than Lerman’s beset Ellison. While war is obviously nothing to laugh at (unless you’re Captain America: The First Avenger, that is), once Fury has finished rumbling on, you’ll undoubtedly wanna make tracks for something happier