The first thing I noticed was the mud. Even more than the copious blood and violence, it represents the defining visual element of Fury. It's everywhere. Feet are caked with it. Tires and treads churn it under. Roads - if they can be called that - are paved with it. Rarely has a World War II film depicted just how filthy everything was during the 1945 slog across Germany's rural country on the race to Berlin. If writer/director David Ayer is to be credited with nothing else, he gets this right, illustrating that, unlike what's shown in less historically exacting war films, the final push for the Allies was no post-D-Day picnic.
In a way, Fury and 1970's Patton could be considered companion pieces. Both deal extensively with tank warfare but from different perspectives. Patton provides a top-down view of battle - one of the strategist gazing from afar and moving pieces around on a chessboard. For the controversial general, engagements were less about Shermans against Tigers than him against Rommel. Fury takes us down to the mud, into the heart of the "purple heart boxes." This is an intense movie, with taut, expertly depicted tank battles and a believable sense of camaraderie among the characters. It flouts as many war movie tropes as it embraces and, because Ayer doesn't play by all the rules, there are times when it's unpredictable.
In his famous speech to the Third Army, Patton said the following: "Some of you boys, I know, are wondering whether or not you'll chicken out under fire. Don't worry about it. I can assure you that you will all do your duty. The Nazis are the enemy. Wade into them. Spill their blood. Shoot them in the belly. When you put your hand into a bunch of goo that a moment before was your best friend's face, you'll know what to do." This is one of the themes of Fury; it shows how the experience of war can harden a man, transforming even the most timid clerk into a killing machine.
Fury introduces us the crew of a Sherman M4 tank making its way across Germany in April 1945. Led by their tough-as-nails sergeant, "Wardaddy" Don Collier (Brad Pitt), they are Bible-thumping Boyd Swan (Shia LaBeouf), pugnacious Grady Travis (Jon Bernthal), and immigrant Gordo Garcia (Michael Pena). The fifth seat in the tank, tragically vacated, is filled by typist-turned-gunner/driver Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), who is as unenthused about being with the four as they are about having him there. During its quiet moments, the movie offers snippets of the sometimes fractious interaction between the tank-mates. There are also five or six engagements (including one in which three Shermans square off against a bigger, more advanced German Tiger) and an interlude in a captured town.
As good at the battle sequences are (and they're very good), Fury's best moments occur during that interlude. In it, Don and Norman find two women hiding in an apartment. They lock the door behind them. At that juncture, it's unclear how things will proceed. Although Don is a heroic type, the film has already shown how war's cold tendrils have changed him. A merciless quality has broken through his personality (illustrated when he shoots a prisoner in the back). There's uncertainty about how this encounter will resolve, and an uncomfortable tension that is could turn ugly. Would Don participate in a rape (or worse)? Without bullets or blood, this fifteen minute segment represents a suspenseful pinnacle for Fury as it peels away layers of the characters to expose things about who they are. Then it's back into the field.
Brad Pitt's Don is a toned-down version of the character he played in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. Don is just as determined and uncompromising but far less gung-ho. He lives by a code of honor with principle #1 being to keep his men alive. Principle #2 follows Patton's directive about killing Nazis. In particular, he has no sympathy for the SS. The only good one is a dead one and it doesn't matter if he has surrendered. Pitt is believable in this role; the actor vanishes into the character. Logan Lerman doesn't have Pitt's screen presence but he fills the role of the clerk-turned-warrior capably. His character has the longest and most extreme arc. Shia LaBeouf, who may or may not have retired from acting after this performance, fulfills the promise that once had Hollywood insiders predicting great things from him. Michael Pena and Jon Bernthal fill out the quintet.
Ayer (the writer of Training Day and the writer/director of End of Watch) does almost everything right in Fury. He captures the grotesque side of war without completely removing the heroic element. This isn't two hours of the Saving Private Ryan Normandy Beach sequence but it has a similar sensibility: the meaning of war to those on the front lines and in the trenches is "survival." It's kill or be killed. Looking for something more lofty than another day of life is left to the generals, strategists, and politicians. The tank battles are presented with as strong a sense of verisimilitude as there has ever been in a World War II film (with only a limited reliance on special effects). Fury offers sufficient down time to develop the characters but not so much that it causes the pace to become sluggish.
Is this an Oscar contender? It's hard to say considering the Academy's sometimes bizarre choices. This is a memorable motion picture, accurately depicting the horrors of war without reveling in the depravity of man (like Platoon). Equally, it shows instances of humanity without resorting to the rah-rah, sanitized perspective that infiltrated many war films of the 1950s and 1960s. It's as good a World War II film as I've seen in recent years, and contains perhaps the most draining battlefield sequences since Saving Private Ryan.
© 2014 James Berardinelli