The most interesting thing about Fury is, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, the very thing which makes it kind of challenging to properly judge and write about: I don’t really have any idea what it is.
I know it’s a movie about a tank. I know it’s the latest feature from David Ayer, who at this point is almost inarguably the go-to guy for what can loosely be termed “guy movies” – that is, movies about men and how they relate to one another in traditionally masculine contexts like war and law enforcement. And I know Fury is pretty good, all things considered. I enjoyed it. But I’m not sure if I enjoyed it on its own terms, or if I’m just a sucker for guy movies about tanks.
On the one hand, Fury draws some immediate comparisons with Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, as they both star Brad Pitt as a drawling, traditionally-masculine All-American Army man with the quite singular goal of killing as many Nazis as possible (often at the expense of everything else). Fury doesn’t have that film’s satirical edge or genre-bending virtuosity, though. On the other hand, it’s a gruesome, unapologetically dark depiction of war, full of appropriate period detail and the nostalgic patina which is de rigueur for this particular conflict – so, just like Saving Private Ryan. But on a surprising third hand, which Fury seems to pull out of nowhere, it’s shot, staged, directed, paced and scored like a balls-to-the-wall modern action showcase which is just introspective enough to be a pretty vivid case-study of the toll war takes on the psychology of the men who fight it.
Mainly though, it’s a movie about a tank.
Said tank is the titular “Fury”: a hulking Sherman commanded by Pitt as Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier: the leader of a five-man crew who’ve been together since the North African campaign. Wardaddy is determined to guide his men through to the rapidly-approaching end of the conflict. The war is already over in the sense that there’s no way the Germans can win, but until the Nazis officially surrender the Allies have no choice but to continue pushing through enemy territory – a more dangerous task than ever now that the remaining scraps of resistance are backed into a corner with nothing left to lose.
Matters are complicated further by the death of Fury’s second driver and the subsequent arrival of his replacement: Norman Ellison, a fresh-faced typist played by Logan Lerman who has managed to spend his scant few weeks in the war avoiding combat altogether. His first task is to wipe up the remains of his predecessor, and from there he’s thrust into the demanding role of gunner against the wishes of absolutely everybody, including himself.
Norman is the audience’s point-of-view character by simple expedient of being the only member of the principle cast who hasn’t yet been emotionally disfigured by the horrors of war – initially, at least. Of course, he goes through the obligatory “boy becomes a man” evolution under Wardaddy’s particularly harsh brand of tutelage, but like most of the characterization in Fury it’s slight and contained enough to not detract from the mud and blood which is quite clearly the movie’s primary focus.
In most cases, such a blatant disregard for storytelling fundamentals would be a big mark in the negative column, but I have a certain respect for how Fury never feels as though it’s trying to make you care about or even like any of its characters. Wardaddy, Gordo, Coon-Ass and Bible aren’t necessarily the heroes, they’re just not Nazis, and so it doesn’t seem like too much of a big deal that they’re not exactly complex and nuanced outside of their one approved character trait.
That isn’t to say that some of this arch characterisation doesn’t hover around the realms of contrivance occasionally, though. Coon-Ass in particular, played rather well by Jon Bernthal, is so blatantly a sociopath that it beggars belief why anyone is willing to keep him around; likewise, Shia LaBeouf’s attempts to embody a grizzled Scripture-spouting preacher are unintentionally hilarious. Pitt is pretty much the best in the business at taking deeply flawed American archetypes and giving them some identifiable humanity, so it’s no surprise he’s good here, and it’s always great to see Michael Pena in things – even though he doesn’t have much to do outside of simply speaking Spanglish, in this case.
Where Fury excels is in establishing those formulaic World War II clichés and then either subverting them or presenting them in a way you weren’t quite expecting. It’s more than willing to go all the way when it comes to depicting battlefield horrors in close-up, gory detail, but it’s also surprisingly keen to show how, good guys or not, there’s something primal and savage about man’s inhumanity to man, and when you boil it down its still basic inhumanity regardless of which trench you’re stood in. This translates to cool-down periods of pseudo-domesticity which actually have scarier, more important things to say about Fury’s crew than their simple willingness to kill; and if the movie isn’t quite brave enough to fully explore what probably occurred after an invading army captured an occupied town, it does a good enough job of shading a nice morally grey area onto the typically black and white canvas of the Allies v. Axis conflict.
Not to mention how purely enjoyable the action scenes are, particularly a tank-on-tank centrepiece which is the first time since 1946’s Theirs is the Glory that a legitimate Tiger (fresh from the Bovington Tank Museum) has been used on a film set. There’s a distinct David and Goliath motif as the smaller, faster Sherman has to manoeuvre around the much larger, more explosively-powerful Tiger; it’s the kind of superbly well-staged battle sequence which relies almost entirely on small details without ever requiring that the audience even notices them in order to be thrilled by it. And perhaps the climactic finale is a little too contrived for its own good, but it facilitates some stunning visuals and an appropriate send-off for the characters, the movie and the war itself.
Fury isn’t any kind of masterpiece, but it’s a hell of an effective war story with the kind of gritty mentality which is all too rare in depictions of this particular conflict. Mechanical, claustrophobic and relentlessly rough on the senses, Fury is, after all, a movie about a tank.