War movies are practically a dime a dozen these days, and it’s even moreso with those revolving around World War II. While one could certainly see unlimited possibilities in stories from that war, it can result in some repetitiveness. This year alone we had Lone Survivor getting a wide release, The Monuments Men, The Railway Man, and later this year there’s ’71, The Water Diviner and Unbroken, among others. The latest one is Fury, which is written and directed by David Ayer, who seems to be taking a different route from his typical urban crime dramas.
Fury, which is the name of the M4 Sherman tank in the film, is about a tank crew including Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña) and Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) led by Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt). One day Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) reluctantly joins them as their new assistant driver for the crew, and together they continue the push into Nazi Germany with the 2nd Armored Division.
In all honestly, I went into the film a bit skeptical. While I generally like David Ayer’s work, I wasn’t sure if he was up to the task to do a dramatic war film. Fortunately, I thought he really brought his A-game as a writer/director. While it’s certainly arguable whether or not Fury is one of the best of its genre, I do think that it is not only Ayer’s best film since End of Watch, it’s one of the best American war films I’ve seen in a while. On the surface, you see a lot of elements you would find in a typical David Ayer film in terms of characters, theming, morality, and gritty aesthetics. Many of these elements transfer from his crime dramas over to this war film quite well, but Ayer also manages to handle them with more maturity and subtlety (relatively speaking) than you would find in his other films.
Starting with the characters, they’re very much in line with what you would find in an Ayer production. They are gleefully crass, morally questionable to the point where you’re not sure if you want to root for them, yet there’s a thin veil of humanity underneath all of them, which makes their stories worth telling. They share a sense of brotherhood and in a way, that’s the only true feeling they have left since first taking part in the war. Their various back-and-forths are very natural and well done, which is elevated even more by the fantastic performances. There not a single bad performance in the film and everyone is at the top of their game, from the main crew ensemble to minor characters performed by the likes of Jason Isaacs, Scott Eastwood, Jim Parrack, etc. Logan Lerman and Shia LaBeouf deliver what might be the best performance of their careers; Brad Pitt does an incredible job as the hardened sergeant, Michael Peña continues to be one of the most consistently great actors working right now (all while not getting enough credit for it), and Jon Bernthal…well, I’m just glad to see Jon Bernthal in more movies, and he’s great in the film as well. While you don’t find out much about the characters themselves, you do get a sense of history and the acting is a big part of that.
In terms of theming, the film is about as close to a literal interpretation of the phrase “war is hell” that you could possibly get. A lot of this comes from tone and imagery. From the very beginning the film shows how bloody and gruesome war can be, and the camera never shies away from it. As the film goes on, the battles get more intense and more violent. With the final battle (no spoilers), there are many shots of these faceless German soldiers coming in droves towards the crew. The German soldiers are presented in an almost silhouetted fashion amongst a dark environment made red and yellow from all the fire surrounding them. War really is hell, and it’s practically home for the characters (it is the “best job they ever had” after all), which makes the various battles much more nightmarish than I expected. At first I thought it would be a problem to see the German soldiers remain these relatively faceless bodies that are just there to get shot by our main characters, but looking back, it seems to be on purpose. There are only a few German soldiers that we do get a good, long look at. There’s one fairly early on, a soldier is captured after battle. As a way to toughen up the newcomer, Don tries to force Norman to shoot the soldier as he kneels down begging to be let go. He takes out pictures of his family, but Don is having none of it. I won’t comment further on how this scene plays out, but it’s one of the most powerful moments in the film. It’s one of only a couple moments where you see a German soldier up close and personal, whereas the rest are mostly faceless and nameless. It’s an interesting way to visually express a loss of humanity and a loss of connection between your fellow man. As a result, the film does a clever job at showcasing how war can turn normal people into desperate and violent people, especially with Norman’s character arc. It’s almost less a struggle for their survival and more a fight for their very soul.
Fury contains a lot of the best filmmaking in David Ayer’s career. It’s beautifully shot with Roman Vasyanov doing the cinematography. Every shot is either dark, dirty, muddy, bloody, intense, or some combination. A lot of it shines through during the incredibly gripping action sequences, which might be some of the best out of any war movie. It combines the wonderfully choreographed tank battles with the claustrophobic insanity that occurs within the tanks as the crew does their best at getting the job done. There’s a consistent bleakness and grim atmosphere that goes through the entire film. The sound design is very immersive, and serves the action sequences very well. The editing and pacing is very meticulous and expertly executed. The costume, makeup and set design flawlessly create seemingly accurate period detail and add a lot to the immersion that throws you into the characters’ situation.
The problems I have are few and far between. The film doesn’t really cover any thematic ground that hasn’t already been covered in many other war films. There is also a moment that occurs when the crew goes into an occupied town and Don and Norman end up meeting with these two German women. There’s a long stretch of them interacting, and to be frank, some of the things that happen are the only things in the entire film that did not feel as real as the rest of it. Fortunately the acting and dramatic payoff manages to save it. Every other problems I have are just nitpicks. For example, the muzzle flashes felt a bit cartoony to where it felt like blaster shots from Star Wars or something; sometimes they even had red and green flashes of light. It took me out of the movie when they first appeared, and it did take me a while to get used to it. Another nitpick is the music, which actually isn’t bad (it is Steven Price after all), but sometimes the way the music was mixed within certain scenes made them a bit heavy handed, I think the movie would have been fine if they toned it down just a bit.
Fury doesn’t necessarily cover any new themes that haven’t been covered in other war films, but the film offers a fresh perspective through the tank crew, which is elevated by the film’s phenomenal acting and David Ayer’s prowess as a filmmaker. It removes any sense of glory or patriotism and instead displays all the guts, despair and horror that will happen in the midst of war while also never taking any sick pleasures from all the gruesome violence. It’s like the dehumanization in Full Metal Jacket combined with the D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan, but extended for two hours. It’s dark, bleak, and unapologetically upfront with graphic images that will surely stay with most viewers for days after seeing the film. While not flawless, it still manages to accomplish exactly what it sets out to do and it more than makes up for those few flaws. It’s an unforgettable film that practically demands to be experienced in a theater. Don’t miss this one.
Side Note: An interesting little behind-the-scenes factoid is that the filmmakers actually used the only operating Tiger 131 tank in the world for the film, which they borrowed from The Tank Museum. It’s utilized very well for a particularly fantastic battle sequence in the film. It’s one of the more interesting details that really make the movie feel real. The attention to detail in the film might be due to Ayer’s history of being in the Navy and his grandparents serving in WWII. In some non-Fury related news, David Ayer is apparently being tapped to direct an adaptation of the DC comic series, Suicide Squad. For those who don’t know, Suicide Squad is basically a group of supervillains who are hired by the government to do secret missions. I find it odd that Warner Brothers would adapt Suicide Squad so early in their DC movies slate, but granted, if any director can handle a comic like Suicide Squad, David Ayer is practically perfect. Tom Hardy, Will Smith and Margot Robbie are currently being eyed to take roles in the film. I have my doubts about how well it’ll go over, but I do hope it goes well.