Brad Pitt as US Army Staff Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier
Shia LaBeouf as US Army Technician 5th Grade Boyd “Bible” Swan
Logan Lerman as US Army Private Norman “Machine” Ellison
Michael Peña as US Army Cpl. Trini “Gordo” Garcia
Jon Bernthal as US Army PFC Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis
Jason Isaacs as US Army Cpt. Waggoner
It’s easy to be cynical about war films, because war is a naturally cynical business. It’s also naturally powerful and attractive for storytellers with its themes on the evil men do to each other and the meaninglessness of the destruction that follows. It’s a deep subject but also a well-covered one–mankind has been working on it since pretty much the invention of writing–making it difficult for news storytellers to keep from revisiting previous explorations, a trap doubly perilous for big-budget star-driven film which tends to love the security of a well-honed cliché. This is how we frequently end up with maddening exercises like “Fury;” films which skillfully and expertly cover ground we have been over hundreds of times.
Fury itself is a tank, a Sherman tank, driving through the heart of Germany in the spring of 1945 as US and British forces inexorably close in on Berlin from the West, bringing the promise of the end of the war tantalizingly close. But it’s still a war and old soldiers are still dying and being replaced by new soldiers, in this case young Norman (Lerman) who is getting ready for his first taste of combat and the reality of war when Fury and the other tanks in its column are sent to hold a cross-roads and protect the advance of the army, no matter the cost.
On the cynical hand, there is almost a check box of modern war film clichés which could be held up and marked off as “Fury” goes about its business. The point of view of the characters is an untested youngster (despite the war having been on for quite some time by this point) who was a clerk and not supposed to be in a combat unit? Check. The unit is initially unhappy with his presence and gives him much trouble until he proves himself? Check. The unit is commanded by a grizzled veteran who seems at odds with his men but actually shares much in common with them? Check. Life affirming character encounters are immediately followed by execution of the same characters to drive home the pointless brutality of war? Check. The new guy is hardened by the experiences and struggles constantly to maintain his moral center? Check. Just as the unit bonds it becomes faced with an impossible choice of doing its duty amid almost certain death or trying to survive and accepting duty as a façade in the face of war? Check. Of course, it has been sixteen years since “Saving Private Ryan” came out and maybe writer/director David Ayer is hoping modern audiences haven’t seen it.
That being said, superior war films like “Ryan” and “Black Hawk Down” have all dipped their toes in these same pools before and come out none the worse for wear. They usually manage it by surrounding the repetitive stuff with well-crafted character exploration and/or cranking up the viciousness and removing as much romanticism from the proceedings as possible. “Fury” would very much like to do both, but its fate is largely going to be determined by which Ayer shows up – the director of the fascinating “End of Watch” or the execrable “Sabotage.”
Mostly it’s the “End of Watch” guy, which makes “Fury” a frequently entertaining and well-crafted film, which is not remotely close to being as important as it sees itself.
Ayer has built quite a few solid battle sequences into the film, leading up to the grand stand at the cross-roads which fills the third act as the wounded tank takes on an entire SS platoon by itself. The final set piece itself is a glory to behold, full of the blood-shed that marks much of the rest of the film (tankers are beheaded, blown up, set on fire and destroyed in just about any way you can think of) while allowing itself to sit back for the one and only time in the film and say ‘isn’t this cool!’
But his interest is plainly in the characters and their interactions, which is what ultimately keeps “Fury” from breaking down. None of them are particularly original–the evangelist preacher (LaBeouf), the ill-tempered country bumpkin (Bernthal)–but Ayer gives all of them time to sit and breathe and talk until they manage to shrug off the worst of their clichéd beginnings and start to approximate actual people. The actors themselves have all come to play, particularly Pitt, LeBeouf and Lerman around whom most of the best exchanges take place. The center of the film is not a tank battle at all, but a long dinner in one of the endless captured towns where the platoon in its way explains how they’ve been ground down by the war and Pitt, in his, shows how he has been trying to keep their heads above it.
That focus, if nothing else, keeps “Fury” from sinking under the weight of the tropes it has covered itself with. It cannot quite rise above them to the level of the modern war films it aspires to, but in its own way it is a worthy addition to the genre.