Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Review: "Fury"

Director: David Ayer
Runtime: 134 minutes

"War is hell." It's not a new idea. It hasn't been for a very, very long time. Even so, it's not impossible to find something new (or at least fresh) to add to one of the most obvious statements in the English language. David Ayer's WW2 tank actioner, however, isn't up to the task of doing or saying anything remotely new or creative. Though there's plenty of impressive technical work on display, Fury's characters are such cardboard cutouts that there's next to nothing to connect to beyond surface investment in the protagonist's survival.

Our set up is as follows: Army desk clerk Norman (Logan Lerman) is assigned to fill the place of the titular tank, headed by Wardaddy (Brad Pitt, rocking the same unfortunate hairdo that Jake Gyllenhaal suffered through in Prisoners). Norman's first task is to clean the brains of his predecessor out of his seat, while the rest of the hardened crew look on, mostly with derision. The other tank-mates include Bible-quoting cannon expert Boyd (Shia LaBeouf), driver Gordo (Michael Pena), and shell-loader Grady (Jon Bernthal). They're all assholes in their own special ways.

Now, here's a fun game: who lives and who dies? If you're expecting surprises, don't. As American soldiers march through war torn German terrain, Fury marches through every plot development we've come to expect in war stories about the Greatest Generation. Playing spot-the-cliche is often as interesting as the scenes where guns and bombs aren't going off. 

Most of Fury is simply a prolonged set-up for its final firefight, wherein the tank's crew, stranded on a rural road, must face off against 300 Nazi foot soldiers. When it comes to carnage, Ayer and his behind the scenes team really do know what they're doing. The claustrophobia of the tank's interior adds an extra layer of tension as the situation grows more dire. Editing and sound work give all of the heavily armed chaos proper emphasis without bludgeoning the viewer, and the make up team ensures that war looks as grimy as possible. Steven Price's booming score is sporadically effective, though it's often too big for its own good. At least it gives the viewer something else to listen to other than the dialogue. Turns out, the only time when Fury comes alive is when scores of people are dying.

Yet it's difficult to find anything worthy of praise when it comes down to the men who we spend more than two bloody hours with. Norman's arc has been done to death, and neither Ayer nor Lerman have come up with anything intriguing about the film's supposed window into the physical and mental toll of war. Pitt, at least, gives the film a consistent performance to hold the stale drama together, but Wardaddy's standard tough yet honorable leader schtick is too restrictive to achieve great depth. 

The supporting players don't fare much better, though often for different reasons. Pena simply doesn't have enough to do, while LaBeouf is stuck fighting a battle against the editors and the script. Boyd's religious alignment overwhelms the rest of his character, and LaBeouf's dialogue wears thin early on. And even though the actor is impressively restrained a times, certain cutaways to his ruddy, tear-stroked face look like they belong in a silent movie. On a completely separate level is former The Walking Dead actor Bernthal, and not in a good way. There's nothing wrong with Grady being a repugnant jerk, but Bernthal throws himself a little too fully into the role. He's not a compelling thorn in anyone's side. Instead, he's just unbearable. Sure, Nazis are terrible, but for much of the ride it's Grady who I wished would get his head blown off. 

If Fury had merely been a pure adrenaline rush, it might have been more convincing. Unfortunately, Ayer is determined to say something meaningful, and it doesn't go all that well. There's a glimmer of hope when Wardaddy and Norman visit a bombed-out town and rest in a local woman's apartment. In addition to allowing the wonderful Romanian actress Anamaria Marinca to appear, the apartment scene is one of the few nonviolent segments of the film that comes close to tackling some complex notions about the relationship between invading armies and native citizens. But then Grady and the rest of the Fury crew show up, and it's all downhill from there. Grady's increasingly boorish behavior adds nothing to the scene's dynamic, and it only serves to make him even more repellent. 

Once Fury bulldozes through its entirely expected climax, connection with the story finally breaks. The admittedly impressive final shot shows how much horrific effort went into such a brief moment of a war that last nearly a decade, but it has a second, unintentional effect. As the film shows us the minute significance of the final battle in the grand scheme of the war, it also serves as a reminder of Fury's own insignificance as a war story. Hollywood has a whole ocean of WW2 dramas, and nothing about Fury is good enough to make it more than just another drop.

Grade: C+/C

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