Thursday, April 9, 2015

Naked Under Metal :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to David Ayers' Fury (2014)

As an amateur history buff, one of the most depressing and infuriating reads I've ever encountered was Death Traps (1998) by Belton Cooper, which was a first-hand auto-biographical take on the massive short-comings of the M4 Sherman when stacked up against the superior German panzers during World War II, where the only advantage the American tank had was speed and mass-production, with the disadvantages being little to no armor and not-near-effective-enough firepower, as fired shells impotently bounced off opponents, while the German 88mm guns usually made short-order of there American counterparts, making them, indeed, death-traps, with an appalling casualty rate.

Seems as America entered it's third year of the war, a critical, and some would argue criminal, decision was made to forgo retooling for the production of the newly minted M26 Pershing tank and stick with the Sherman. This decision was backed by General Patton, the leading authority on tank warfare, who favored the lighter and more mobile Sherman, feeling tanks were not supposed to fight tanks but bypass them and attack the enemy from the rear. Eisenhower agreed and, judging by the evidence provided by Cooper, who had served in the 3rd Armored Division under Patton, this decision was a disaster that "lengthened the war and became a literal death sentence for thousands of tank-crew members."

All of this came to the forefront when I finally sat down and watched David Ayer's Fury (2014), which focuses on one such tank crew who, after surviving North Africa, D-Day, and the Bulge, miraculously intact, suffer their first casualty. Of course the replacement is both green and shunned, which rings somewhat true as, by this time, whatever warm bodies that could be mustered were assigned as replacements -- though the misplaced file clerk (Lerman) going through a trial by blood and fire, here, where subtlety and nuance are ground up under the tank treads, rings a little too close to the been there, done that, misplaced translator from Saving Private Ryan (1998). But in his defense, from the deified commander (Pitt), a bible-thumper (LeBeouf), a token minority (Peña), and the hick (Bernthal), the rest of the cast is an even bigger cache of cliches. However, the acting of all involved is really quite good and do the best they can to elevate what they're given, cancelling out some of these concerns.

Where the film positively excels is when Ayers brings out the constant anxiety of the crews and the fear and the effectiveness of these tankers each time they go into battle. The combat scenes are incredibly staged, brutal and harrowing. The sequence where a dreaded King Tiger tank wipes out a whole column, and the ensuing game of cat and mouse that follows, epitomizes everything Cooper was lamenting about. And in the quieter moments, I haven't seen a film de-romanticize service and un-glamourize combat this much since Carl Foreman's equally depressing, The Victors (1963). And though I did appreciate what Ayers was shooting for, something a little deeper, he kinda played out his "war is hell" cards with too heavy a hand.

And strangest of all, as we head into SPOILER TERRITORY, everything he and his veteran characters were preaching against, and the philosophy of caution that kept them alive thus far, is summarily ignored for a climax that is fairly ridiculous in its last stand John Wayne-ishness as the lone tank and her crew suicidally defends a crossroads against an over-whelming battalion of SS troops. Again, it's executed quite brilliantly, but ends just like you know it will. And here, Ayers blew a golden opportunity to add a poignant coda to his film, adding a bittersweet punch to the stomach on the sacrifice of the Fury's crew, which brings us full-circle back to Cooper's book.

See, Cooper served in a unit that was in charge of recovering damaged and knocked-out tanks and making them serviceable again; another direly grim advantage the Americans had over the Germans, leaving no doubt that Fury, the tank, would've been patched up, hosed out, repainted, refitted, and back on the line with a brand new crew in less than two days after the climactic battle.

Despite all of the gripes and missed opportunities, I'm happy to say the good outweighs the bad and I enjoyed this movie a whole lot. It was just frustrating, and a little counter-intuitive, and that keeps Fury from being as great as it could and should've been.

Fury (2014) QED International :: LStar Capital :: Le Grisbi Productions :: Crave Films :: Huayi Brothers Media :: Columbia Pictures / EP: Anton Lessine, Alex Ott, Brad Pitt, Sasha Shapiro, Ben Waisbren / P: David Ayer, Bill Block, Jeremy Johns, John Lesher, Ethan Smith / AP: Owen Thornton / D: David Ayer / W: David Ayer / C: Roman Vasyanov / E: Jay Cassidy, Dody Dorn / M: Steven Price / S: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal

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