There is an early scene in ‘Fury’ in which Brad Pitt’s heavily scarred Army leader character talks about killing as many Germans as possible. It’s hard not be reminded of Pitt’s Aldo Raine character in Quentin Tarantino’s outstanding ‘Inglourious Basterds’. ‘Fury’ is as conventional a war movie as ‘Inglourious Basterds’ is unconventional.
It is April 1945. As the Allies push German forces back into Germany, Sergeant Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) commands a Sherman tank called Fury. The five-man team consists of Gordo (Michael Pena), Bible (Shia LaBeouf), and Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal). The crew, which has been together since the North African Campaign, loses their assistant driver and machine gunner, and they aren’t particularly happy to see his replacement, Norman (Logan Lerman). That is because Norman has only been in the war for eight weeks and has only been trained as a typist – he has never even fired a weapon before.
Norman’s inexperience causes him to throw up while cleaning up the pieces of his predecessor in the tank, and even worse, costs the life of another tank commander during an ambush. Wardaddy forces Norman to make his first war kill, and he begins to toughen up. Wardaddy then takes Norman to meet a local woman and her younger cousin in a small German town (I’m going to assume Norman was a virgin until this moment). The younger cousin, played by Alicia Von Rittberg, is absolutely stunning. At this point, it becomes clear that Wardaddy is favoring Norman. This scene, which starts off beautifully, goes on for far too long. It is reminiscent of the extended dinner scene in ‘Apocalypse Now Redux’, which of course, wasn’t included in the original theatrical cut of ‘Apocalypse Now’ because it didn’t quite work.
Just when that scene feels like it will never end, their orders come in and they are instructed to defend a vital crossing. But Fury becomes immobilized, and they must contend with the arrival of 300 German SS troops.
Writer-Director David Ayer gets the details right. ‘Fury’ is very grim, bleak, and tactile in its griminess, and the misery of it all. The muddy palettes of greys and browns, and buckets of gore bring to mind ‘Saving Private Ryan’, but I’m afraid many contemporary Hollywood War pictures have imitated this technique in trying to depict the true horrors of armed conflict. War isn’t romanticized here. It is a hell. And Ayer wallows in it. The action sequences, particularly the last one, are crisply staged. The camerawork in contemporary war films tend to be overly frantic in order to illustrate the chaos and confusion, but I was grateful for being able to make sense of the action in ‘Fury’ (the movie employs actual tanks on genuine terrain).
There are, however, big problems with ‘Fury’, which is why I’m not recommending it (particularly for those with weak stomachs). I’m afraid it comes down to the basics. Ayer has spent so much time on the look of ‘Fury’ that he has neglected to give the movie a soul. The outstanding technical achievements come at the expense of the imperative elements of a movie – you know, like narrative and characters. I previously described what this movie is about in greater detail than I normally would for a review. I found it difficult to simplify the events of this film into a brief plot description. And that is because ‘Fury’ is about incident, not plot. The crew is given specific tasks, which they need to execute, and that’s about it. There isn’t a compelling storyline. The performances are good across the board (Brad Pitt is always good; the main surprise is from a grizzled Shai LaBeouf). But, the actors are trapped within their character constructs. They are completely devoid of shadings beyond the single trait that makes them a type. The intention may very well be that these characters are stripped of what they used to be and have fully morphed into these soldiers. This may work in theory, but without a reason to care for these characters, the film becomes dramatically inert and we are just witnessing a technical exercise with minimal impact.
David Ayer’s gritty cop drama ‘End of Watch’ made my Top 10 List of 2012. It had terrific shootouts, and chases, yes, but it also had great respect for its fleshed out characters. I deeply cared for the two honest cops played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena. Ayer had all the right elements there. ‘Fury’ represents a greater scope and scale, and Mr. Ayer is unable to transfer what worked so well there into here.
Despite my above praise for some outstanding technical work, I can’t really say that the battle sequences fully work in conjunction with whatever story the movie is trying to tell. The barbarous nature of Ayer’s characters are revealed early on; there is some moral ambiguity with them. The problem with the movie is that by giving audience members a full-blown action extravaganza, such complexities are eradicated in a combat sense. It becomes a clear us versus them story. Good versus evil. And some of the combat is just a little too close to tank-based video game violence. There is a laughable battle sequence involving color-coded, light-saber-esque laser bullets. I’m sorry. The subject here deserves far more respect than the filmmakers are willing to give it.
I’ve spoken to a few people about ‘Fury’, and I suspect I will be in the minority on this one. They appear to be reviewing the film it could and should have been as opposed to what is actually on the screen. It is easy to admire this movie. It has good intentions. But good intentions alone do not make a good movie. QED.