As it rattles through the countryside, its defensive armor pocked by dozens of mortar and bullet marks, one can tell that Fury has seen its fair share of fighting. As a tank trying to clear a path to Berlin for Allied troops during the final desperate days of World War II, it’s also safe to say that there’s a suicide mission quality to the crew’s purpose, even with assurances from Staff Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) that he will keep them safe.
So far, he’s been more or less successful. While he recently lost his side gunner, our hardboiled hero has managed to keep the low IQ likes of mechanic Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal), driver Cpl. Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena), and artilleryman Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf) alive. They’ve all been overwhelmed by the recent loss, making newcomer Norman Ellison’s (Logan Lerman) acclimation into this group all the more difficult.
Besides, our new recruit wants nothing to do with killing. A glorified desk jockey, he’s been pulled onto active duty thanks, in part, to the American’s desire to barrel through the German countryside and destroy Hitler and his headquarters once and for all. While the body count has been significant, the individual raids on small towns and villages have yielded lots of intelligence, and some startling realizations. The enemy, mostly SS officers and their reluctant underlings, are using women and children as soldiers/shields, letting them die in the name of country.
As it continues on its course, as the movie named after it follows its detailed, day-to-day travails, Fury becomes a compelling companion piece to previous post-modern war films. It’s the brutality of Saving Private Ryan without the jingoistic flag-waving, the one-two punch of Clint Eastwood’s Greatest Generation epics (Flag of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima) sans the strident moralizing. Instead, writer/director David Ayer (yes, the man behind Training Day, Street Kings, End of Watch and Sabotage) lets the minutia do the talking. From the layout inside the massive killing machine to the little moments among the men, he fashions a film where violence is omnipresent, and yet small swatches of sanity still rule.
Wardaddy is a perfect example of this paradox. He hates the SS so much that he’ll gladly get his hands dirty executing them (including a particular gruesome and suspenseful sequence of close quarters hand-to-hand combat). On the other hand, the losses experienced by his fellow GIs often reduce him to lonely, tear-streaked contemplation. We witness at least three of these depressing downtimes in the movie, each one proving Brad Pitt’s bravado is easily undermined. Even when his fellow actors have similar breakdowns (especially Lerman, whose whiny and uncooperative… that is, until he learns to like killing Germans), only Wardaddy’s warrant our respect. Pitt sees the bigger picture here. Everyone else just wants a ticket home.
Considering its possible scope and the outsized elements a movie like this could contemplate, Ayer wisely keeps everything down to Earth and authentic. The battle sequences, and there are a few, are founded on the physical heft of a WWII era tank, not some CG silliness. In fact, if the current technological technique was indeed used here, the results are seamless. There is a sequence where Wardaddy and his gang witness a horribly uneven dogfight between hundreds of Allied planes a few German stragglers, but for the most part, this is a conflict waged on the ground, face to face, with mortars and tracer bullets exploding all around.
As for the characters themselves, they are more than mere clichés. Ayer does rely heavily on type at first, with LaBeouf spouting Bible verse while Bernthal goes nasty Neanderthal on everything he comes in contact with. Pena is more composed, but equally prone to outrageous behavior while Lerman’s spilt second conversion from scaredy cat to slayer is abrupt. But then, as the story moves along, we learn more about them: that Swan’s saintliness hides its own horrors; that Travis can be just as erudite as his better educated brothers in arms, he just has a different way of expressing himself.
The rest of the characters are casualties of Ayer’s desire to stay with Fury‘s close knit group. Even a sequence where two German women help Wardaddy and Ellison out is mere world weary washed out window dressing.
No, the real impact comes at the end, when it looks like Fury’s run of luck has vanished. We’ve seen them scrape by before, fate taking two other tanks instead of theirs. But stranded at a crossroad, a huge contingent of SS heading their way, it’s time for Wardaddy and his men to put up or shut up. And they put up magnificently. Realistically. Without flag-waving or chest pounding.
Sure, there’s a moment toward the end that reads as completely contrived and impossible, but since Ayer and his cast have built up so much goodwill before then, we accept the slip. There’s also a minor sense of manipulation in the finalé, as if we are supposed to understand that, sometimes, the cavalry doesn’t always arrive to save the day.
Perhaps the biggest issue facing this otherwise excellent film is the fictional nature of the story. No such tank existed (at least, not that this critic is aware of) and the storyline feels “true”, even if we don’t get a “based on a…” byline before the start. In fact, what Ayer achieves in the face of such falsehoods makes the end result even more meaningful. Granted, this may not be a movie in celebration of a specific person or platoon, but as a testament to what it took to stare death in the face on a regular basis and maintain a modicum of morale, Fury succeeds.
It’s also a brilliant deconstruction of tank life, albeit one where the drudgery and grimness underlines the true Hell of War.