Ever since Steven Spielberg set the bar for World War II films, it’s difficult for any war film in the same period not to be compared to Saving Private Ryan. So audiences will most likely be expecting the same level of authenticity, grit and humanity from any other film that tries to deliver a similar experience. It is against this titan that David Ayer’s Fury stands, and while his film doesn’t measure up, it is still superb in its own ways.
In April of 1945, American Allied forces pushed into the Nazi Germany. During these days leading up to the end, Allied tanks suffered heavy losses to the superior Nazi machines. One tank, the Fury, managed to survive ever since she was deployed in Africa thanks to her skilled crew led by Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt). Accompanied by his loyal soldiers, Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña), and Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal), Wardaddy has managed to take the fight all the way into the heart of Germany. It’s here that he loses a crucial member of his team, only to have him replaced by a soldier named Norman (Logan Lerman), who is trained to be a clerk. With no choice but to accept Norman, Wardaddy has little time to turn him into a hardened killer before his crew is assigned a special mission to defend a strategic position against an imposing Nazi force.
The setup for Fury definitely feels like an homage to Saving Private Ryan, with its rock-like commanding officer who doesn’t show emotion in front of his men, the addition of a non-combat soldier being thrust into the thick of things, the salty band of brothers kept in line by one of their own rank and file, and, finally, the third act where the soldiers must hold their ground against insurmountable odds. However, Fury also does an adequate job in distinguishing itself in the details. Watching World War II from inside a tank is a wholly unique experience, and seeing the men synergize into an effective fighting unit is rousing in all the ways that watching a group achieve more together than as individuals offers.
Comparisons aside, Fury strikes an excellent balance between the grittiness of war and the humanity that the soldiers internalize and protect. When it’s time to kill, the film doesn’t shy away from human butchery. Limbs are shot off by small arms fire. People are decapitated by tank rounds. Bodies are flattened to almost cartoon level thinness under tank treads. There’s enough violence here to make audiences really believe that they’re watching war. Conversely, there’s a very textured human touch that punctuates the violence. Gallows humor is pervasive and expected, but there are also scenes that celebrate life, like when the soldiers capture a town and party a little too hard. It’s easy to see that moment as boorish Americans being loud and obnoxious, but they’re also just celebrating like men who have cheated death for one more day. Finally, there are also surprising quiet moments that director David Ayer lingers on, like a soldier, sitting in the cold, watching a road for enemy movement, that takes the film to a new level of verisimilitude.
Unfortunately, despite a majority of good filmmaking choices, Fury can’t shake off its sheen of Hollywood deliberateness. For instance, the violence is gorier than most movies of similar ilk, but a lot of punches look visibly pulled. Similarly, a lot of the dialogue in the dramatic moments of the film feels contrived and irrelevant. In one long scene, some soldiers recount having to kill horses, expecting it to be a poignant story of how their experiences separate them from newer soldiers. Regrettably, this anecdote comes after watching several men die horrible deaths, making the story pale in comparison. Rather than be organic moments expressed by characters in the moment, many parts of the movie feel forced. This notion extends all the way to the set piece in the third act where a small group is pitted against overwhelming numbers. It’s only through creative filmmaking that the better equipped German forces are made to look so incompetent.
Fortunately, the cast delivers believable performances throughout. Brad Pitt is a little stiff, but serviceable. Logan Lerman has the toughest job traversing the sizable bend in his character arc, but he manages. It’s the other three main actors, Shia LeBeouf, Jon Bernthal and Michael Peña that really shine and illustrate the bonding nature war has on disparate people. These characters are the heart and soul of the film and it would have been nice to see them with more screentime.
Fury is a very satisfying film that attempts to reach both ends of the human emotional spectrum in the way that real war often does. By and large, it succeeds. There is death and destruction, but there is love and compassion. Bridging the two ends is an imperfect plot and not entirely developed characters, but solid performances and excellent production value help make Fury one of the better films of the year.