Friday, October 24, 2014

Rohan: Tanks for nothing, Fury

(Always happy to welcome our friend Rohan Morbey to the Jaman blog, even if he's less than effusive over Fury, the new WWII movie starring Brad Pitt. But he's letting us cross-post his review, which appears over at his site Closing Credits - do follow him on the Twitters!)

War is hell. War is unforgiving. War is unrelenting. War for a soldier is dirty, grim, and each day could be your last. Movies have showed us this for decades now, even if they barely even scratch the surface of what it might be like in reality. I thank God I’ll never have to experience it; and as a film lover I thank brilliant film makers like Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, Francis Ford Coppola, and Ridley Scott for making some truly stunning war movies in the modern era.

David Ayer is not one such recipient of my thanks, and what frustrated me most about his WWII effort Fury is the missed opportunity it represents. Perhaps I had the wrong expectations but I assumed a talent like Brad Pitt, an actor who is so often drawn to quality and challenging material, would attach himself to a war movie which had something new to say. Fury is about five members of a tank crew towards the end of WWII, lead by Pitt, but Ayer spends little time showing the audience the day-to-day life of the men whose figurative home is a Sherman tank, and focuses all his efforts on making a viscerally impressive but emotionally and creatively empty film.

So void is Ayer's screenplay of any drive in story or narrative you could walk into a screening of Fury at any moment and have not missed anything. The film is full of stock characters (tough leader, new and scared recruit, man driven to the edge, token ethnic) and clichés we’ve seen countless times before which render the story dead by the hour mark. More time devoted to these men, their backstory and actually seeing how a tank is a vital part of the war effort, as opposed to just a machine which can shoot large calibre rounds which make for a fantastic sound and explosions, could have made this a unique war movie. There’s a scene where the caterpillar track is detached and the tank stranded; I wanted to see the track getting fixed, or any side of a soldier’s duty when he’s not carrying a gun, but this never comes. Instead the film is just one action scene after another, punctuated with one extended scene in a house (which deserves special mention later) without any real sense of purpose. Why do we care about these men other than the fact that they’re not Nazis? We don’t.

I won’t deny that the film looks terrific in its attention to detail, and the sound design is superb throughout; it’ll make a great demo disc for Blu-ray and home cinema no doubt. Ayer also directs the film with a professionalism not seen in his previous efforts and I didn’t spot a handheld camera (which is a small mercy for anyone who saw Sabotage earlier this year). One standout action scene, in which the US Sherman squares off against a single German Tiger, treats us to the kind of unique battle sequence which Fury, I hoped, would be all about. The tactics, movements, timing and teamwork is all on show with Ayer covering all the angles. I loved it.

The problem is Ayer is a pretty bland director when he’s not being creative, yet he’s intolerable when he is being creative. The finale is a forced, overlong and preposterous sequence where the tank takes on a few hundred German soldiers who only decide to use anti-tank missiles towards the end. Pitt and his crew stage an Alamo-style face off because the film was in need of an ending and for no other reason, and it is here where Fury shows just how confused it is; Nazis are mown down against a backdrop of over-stylized yellow smoke and red flashing lights (it’s hell, I get it) by our American heroes in typical Hollywood movie style, yet the final shot is of the tank and the mass of bodies surrounding it, with the score rising complete with choir voices to give it that heavenly, Godly quality, and Ayer asks his audience; “Isn’t war hell, guys? Just look at all these bodies.” That might have some impact if those same bodies weren’t being used as cannon fodder just minutes before.

The one standout scene, as mentioned above, was one which was so nearly great, so nearly a sign of well observed and subtle commentary on war, men and reality. I won’t spoil it here as it’s the key scene in the film and the one which most people will talk about; but Ayer shows he doesn’t quite have the ear for dialogue and understanding of how and when to change the dynamics of a scene like a Quentin Tarantino, whose style the scene evokes. It simply goes on too long, hammers home its message quite clumsily and is followed immediately by the most predictable of all clichés.

Fury offers precious little we haven't seen before from war movies, and ends up getting lost in the cracks between ‘gritty’ action movies and thoughtful commentary on war. It isn’t good enough as either to be considered one of the greats it so desperately wants to be.

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