Fury, the latest film from David Ayer (End of Watch, Sabotage), opens with a stunning tracking shot of a German soldier on horseback meeting his demise while scouring a battlefield litterer with bodies, twisted metal, and abandoned machinery for survivors. It’s an eerily effective opening sequence that sets the tone for everything to follow. This tale of soldiers living together as part of a World War II tank crew in Europe is nasty and unflinchingly brutal, but that’s appropriate and more in line with the kinds of films the heavily testosterone driven Ayer should be making in the first place.
There is a major problem, though, but not with the film’s formal design: there’s hardly any degree of originality to anything that takes place. As well acted and gorgeously mounted of a production as it is, if you’ve seen any war film in your life, chances are that after the shock of the opening scene you will know every single plot point and line of dialogue that’s going to come out of the character’s mouths long before those moments hit. After that great opening that element of surprise gets thrown out the window for narrative convention without ever looking back. That doesn’t mean Fury is bad, but that it’s passable at best. It’s respectful towards those who fought and died and to the audience who just wants to see a war film rather than live through one, but that’s about all it ends up accomplishing.
After returning with his crew from a battle where no one else survived and having lost one of their own tightly knit crew, tank commander Don Collier (Brad Pitt) and his fellow soldiers don’t get more than a brief moment to breathe before getting sent out on another mission behind German lines. It’s the waning days of the war, the Germans haven’t surrendered yet and the tank division for the allies has suffered a staggering 90% loss rate against the better built German tanks. The latest addition to his crew, a rookie soldier named Norman (Logan Lerman) who never saw combat in the early days of the war, is a pacifist that the other men see as a huge potential liability.
The story really belongs to Don and Norman since the audience has to be anchored in their more human stories than those of the grunts that share claustrophobic cabin space within the Sherman tank. Ayer and Pitt do a fine job in tandem making the point that war is a cruel affair and any drop of humanity that can be found within the bloodshed is something to be seized and not taken for granted. Don has to train his men to be ruthless killers in a kill-or-be-killed environment, and Pitt makes Don equally authoritative and kind towards the men in his command and showing the character’s increasingly conflicted nature.
The violence on display here hovers around the levels previously set by Saving Private Ryan. When someone gets mowed down by a tank, the results aren’t pretty. Heads get blown off, pieces of people’s faces have to be cleaned from the tank, bullets rip through bodies like buzzsaws. The setting is appropriately dreary with smoke almost always in the air, mud everywhere, and nary a ray of sunshine to be seen. The feeling of the production design and cinematography screams authenticity even when the rest of the film adheres to Hollywood convention.
There’s not a single scene or character in Fury that hasn’t been cribbed from another previously successful archetype. The crew is rounded out by the religious second in command (Shia LaBeouf, who for all of the hubbub surround his performance here is actually great), the token Hispanic guy (Michael Pena), and the hillbilly loose cannon (Jon Bernthal). These characters do precisely what you think they will do exactly when you think they will do them. Even Lerman can only do so much in the role of a coward learning how to be a real soldier. It doesn’t matter how good the actors are because it seems like these are roles that can be played in their sleep by people this talented.
We get the scene where Don has to explain to his superiors his misgivings about a mission without being listened to. There’s the scene where the new recruit will be forced into killing. There’s the male bonding sequence. There’s the part where the crazy guy will have to cruelly haze the newbie. Ayer even goes as far as including a lengthy sequence around the midway point that almost functions as his take on the French plantation scene in Apocalypse Now (Redux) when Don and Norman have lunch with two attractive German women in a town they just helped to overtake.
That sense of sameness is a major stumbling point, but it never kills the momentum of the film. It just makes Fury seem more like an homage to wartime technology and the films that came before it instead of an original idea. A more major demerit comes in the form of the film’s ludicrously implausible and sometimes poorly staged final stand, which is more silly and frustrating to watch than anything that came before it. Sadly, once that part hits, you still know exactly what’s going to happen before any of the characters do.
Still, there’s enough going here for me to feel comfortable marginally recommending it. But much like the mass produced Sherman tanks, don’t expect much more than the most basic of products.