I won’t lie and say I’m not tired by Hollywood’s obsession with being gritty. If it’s not a new serious take on a superhero or a or a downbeat sequel or remake, then it’s seemingly not worth investing in. You don’t get GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and THE LEGO MOVIE every year. But if there’s one genre that has every right to be gritty, it’s the war movie, and FURY even manages to have a few laughs in addition to slowly wearing down your soul, usually coming from the tasteless banter between this hugely unconventional testosterone-fuelled family who live in a tin can.
As WWII enters its final phase, Hitler and his forces are getting desperate. As the Allies push on through Germany, leaving rubble in their wake, tank warfare is becoming increasingly important to support exhausted ground troops and to maintain control of the few towns and cities left standing. The American tanks – one such example being Fury, commanded by Sergeant “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) – are effectively relics next to their far deadlier German equivalents, and rely on the skill and resolve of their crews to win the day. Wardaddy and his crew – gunner/chaplain “Bible” (Shia LaBeouf), driver “Gordo” (Michael Peña), loader “Coon-Ass” (Jon Bernthal), and new recruit Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) – are given the unenviable mission to block the advance of the German war machine, or die trying.
Fury’s tank battle scenes are impressively choreographed and edited (both visually and perhaps more importantly in sound terms) as well as being palm-sweatingly tense, and claustrophobic enough to bring on a panic attack. The brutality of the war violence isn’t held back on either, with bodies being literally obliterated left, right and centre. A portion of a human face, cleanly severed from its owner and left on a seat inside a tank is an image that you might struggle to shift. Fury could never be accused of glamorising warfare, and if you really think it does that, then you perhaps need to watch it again. These are dirtiest, nastiest men blowing each other to bits, and while they are all just doing a job that someone has to, they aren’t coy about showing how much they can enjoy it. Their glee at violence and tasteless wisecracks about the horrors they have been collectively responsible for should not be taken as “selling” what they do, rather these aspects of the characters are so over-the-top that they are mocking these kinds of attitudes in the armed forces, sending up these views by exaggeration, just as THE WOLF OF WALL STREET did with amoral money men.
You don’t often see these kinds of moral questions explored in war films, and especially not in this way. We’ve seen conflicted soldiers before, sure, but they usually know what they are doing is essentially wrong, even if they’re doing it for the right reasons, and are preparing for their soul’s eternal damnation as a result. The characters in Fury, on the other hand, probably know what they do, and how they do it, is wrong, but they don’t tend to worry about it, and even seem to relish it. Their attitude seems to be that the Nazis are so bad they need to be worse to effectively fight them, and they’ve been doing it so long they no longer see the rights and wrongs of a more civilised world.
The best scene in the film doesn’t even take place in the titular rustbucket. Wardaddy and Norman scout a nearby house when their convoy rolls into town, and discover two German women (Anamaria Marinca and Alicia von Rittberg) hiding there, and have to decide what to do with them. The sequence is a mini masterpiece in its own right, it tricks you into thinking it’s heading to a much darker place than it is, then it lulls you into a false sense of security as the tension drops momentarily, before heading back into darkness again as the rest of Fury’s crew crash the party. In some ways it’s a moment of relief from the relentless carnage, but in many ways it’s a far more frightening scene in what it says about how human behaviour degrades in wartime.
The performances are great for the most part. Logan Lerman keeps proving himself as a young talent to watch, giving Norman many different shades to his character and elevating him from the standard audience surrogate. Shia LaBeouf is arguably the best he’s ever been, conveying an almost painful intensity with very few words, and Pitt keeps the whole thing ticking over as Fury’s (mostly) unshakable commander, who is equal parts drill sergeant and Mother Hen. Wardaddy does tend to speak mostly in taglines, which can grate, but at least he doesn’t go off on long monologues about liberty and morality, as he well knows he’s not the right person to preach from that particular pulpit. Michael Peña is reliable as always, but out of all of Fury’s crew is perhaps given the least chance to make his mark, to define who his character is (appearing in a funny hat in one scene doesn’t really count as a character trait), and Jon Bernthal essentially reprises Shane from THE WALKING DEAD, but with less subtlety.
The finale does admittedly drag on a little, and seems to have been dragged in from a different film with somewhat less high aspirations just to give the Fury crew a worthy challenge. Said challenge comes from a detachment of the SS, the crème de la crème (or whatever the German equivalent is) of Hitler’s forces, who march fanatically chanting like Sauron’s orcs, so you know they’re super-duper bad (thanks for emphasising that, Mr Ayer!). In this final extended, hellish battle sequence shrouded in smoke and illuminated by bursts of flame, Ayer and his effects team decided to highlight the American and Nazi bullets in different colours – red for our heroes, green for their opponents. I can understand why this was done, so you know instantly who’s shooting which way at who through the gloom, but the end result with the contrasting bright colours looks a little too distractingly like a scene STAR WARS. You also can’t help but think in the film’s final moments that David Ayer lost his nerve to give a slightly more studio-friendly ending, which is odd considering how uncompromising the rest of the movie has ended up being.
Fury does advance the war movie through unflinching portrayal of brutality, both through levels of gore and violence, and through the characters’ rather extreme world views. You’re unlikely to find any of the crew of Fury particularly relatable, and certainly not likable, but that doesn’t mean this group, which David Ayer had acting as a team off-screen as well as off, isn’t compelling and disturbingly fascinating to spend time with. The film exposes a side to WWII warfare that is rarely focussed on, and it represents it on screen warts and all, but it still can’t shake free the somewhat outdated Hollywood tropes, plot structure and short-cuts to quick and easy characterisation. The cast certainly sell the kind of conditions the real tank teams would have worked in, and it is this sweaty, grimy discomfort and the deafening noise that will stay with you. SSP