War is ugly. War is Hell. In Fury, the latest movie from Training Day director David Ayer, we get told these things over and over again, in a way that will numb and confound with their repetition. There’s also a lot of good stuff, too, but unfortunately it’s bogged down by the usual things: bad character work, poor pacing, and worst of all, a lot of poor choices. But Fury is so glum, and so intense, that it works in its favour a lot of the time in reminding us that, yes, war is ugly, war is Hell. We get it.
It’s April, 1945, and the second World War is coming to a close. The fight on the Allied front has shifted to Germany, where the dwindling Nazi forces are retreating. Brad Pitt plays Don Collier, or ‘Wardaddy’ as he’s known down the pub, who is commander of a tiny group of soldiers that must head deep into enemy territory with just a tank for company. The cast that completes his troupe of battle-hardened warriors are Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal, and Logan Lerman as new recruit Norman Ellison. Lerman’s and Pitt’s characters are the only ones worth noting, for the others fall into heavy stereotypes, and as great to watch as their Mexican-versus-redneck-versus-bible-basher face-offs are, they simply have no arcs. And that’s the core problem of Fury: its characters haven’t been given the same amount of detail as its numerous set pieces.
But let’s take a moment for those set pieces: every time the drama stops and the group’s tank charges into battle, brilliant choreography, stunning sound design and the kind of shocking gore that you are not expecting when you go in, make Fury a shoe-in for action film of the year. It’s when Ayer is aiming for something larger, something that feels important, in the movie’s quieter moments, that it cuts any momentum to the story. The biggest perpetrator of that crime is a poorly placed scene where Collier and Ellison invade the home of two terrified German women, and in a very troubling case of stockholm syndrome, make themselves at home in the most domineering, potentially misogynistic way imaginable. Harsh words, but in attempting to shoehorn a doomed romance subplot into his movie, short or not, it’s clear that Ayer can’t make his mind up if he wants to make a sombre, introspective war movie like The Thin Red Line, or a gritty actioner like the louder parts of Saving Private Ryan.
The space inside the team’s Sherman tank is cramped and claustrophobic, and as a result, it’s obvious that Fury is all about depicting war at its most gruesomely realistic and soul-destroying worst. When it’s not thrilling us, it’s boring us – but Fury is, quite admirably, happy being itself. But besides the mud-flecked visual splendour of the camerawork, it feels like a particularly dull lesson in an old classroom, where the only thing stopping you from falling asleep on your desk is the occasional noisy explosion from outside. If it doesn’t join the pantheon of great war films, at the very least, Fury is worth seeing because it tries so hard to.