November 18th 2014 03:10
Over the course of numerous films, both as a writer (2001’s Training Day and 2002’s Dark Blue) and director (2008’s Street Kings and 2012’s End of Watch), David Ayer’s long obsession has been with law enforcement and the moral boundaries traversed by men on both sides of the dividing blue line. For his latest, Fury (2014), he slips into new shoes to explore a world in which utter chaos reigns, where the only law is that of the jungle, a place where death and atrocity outstrip breathing. In the vein of Samuel Maoz’s admittedly superior Lebanon (2009) Ayer ventures into the suffocating confines of a tank advancing through German terrain in the final throes of war in 1945. Led by 'Wardaddy' (Brad Pitt) they're a resolute but not especially sympathetic quartet after having lost a key component. There’s the religiously devout 'Bible' (Shia LaBeouf), an American marked by his ethnicity, 'Gordo' (Michael Pena), and the generally heedless redneck capable of one or two quiet, illuminating moments beyond his blathering gung-ho outrage, 'Coon-Ass' (Jon Bernthal). Collectively they bristle when presented with their newest crew member, the youthful, misplaced pencil pusher Norman (Logan Lerman).
Ayer’s use of the youngest man’s perspective is hardly ground-breaking. In fact it’s a long-established cliché’, utilising naivety and innocence as a means of gauging the scale of corruption as the horror of combat is filtered through youthful eyes. It’s the imagery rather than the dialogue that carries the greatest emotional heft. Ayer’s screenplay strives for profound reflection in throwaway lines and observations, mostly from Norman and Wardaddy’s perspective, but they mostly feel stagey and self-conscious. It’s the rawness and graphic totality that seeps into our consciousness, from a vague impression of a corpse being pressed deeper into the mud beneath the tank’s progress to limbs shot off and the glazed indifference of visages wallowing in an unforgiving stasis, hardened into thousand yard stares. Pitt’s Wardaddy is a man of conviction, a natural leader and we’re never in doubt of his ability to motivate his men. Lerman’s Norman is initially feeble and utterly unprepared for war games but his transformation plays out with equal conviction.
Ultimately, are there any fresh insights to be gleaned from Fury? Like the majority of war films, it’s undoubtedly an anti-war film with the futility of death juxtaposed - often artfully, poignantly and provocatively - against the shimmering refrains of man’s survival instinct. The film also offers another spit and polish of the precious notion of American heroism. It's gripping enough with a slew of action set-pieces impressively handled by Ayer, whilst Steven Price's score, sombre and elegaic, occasionally strays upon a less subtle register in its need to vindicate the emotional weight of Ayer's images.
A stopover in a small German town unfortunately provides an awful twenty minute respite however. Here, having conquered the Germans, Wardaddy with the ready-to-be-initiated Norman at his heels, ventures into the remnants of a building. They find two cowering, pretty young women who are forced to feed and sexually service their captors. Soon the men's silently mocking comrades stumble upon their spoils, adding even less veracity - if that's possible - to what is a cartoonish, poorly written scene of simulated domesticity. The entire sequence reeks of artificiality and provides the only real dud note in an otherwise accomplished if not quite outstanding war drama.