It wasn’t too long ago that war films painted their characters as clear-cut heroes and villains belonging solely to one side or the other, but by the time the darkness of the Vietnam War settled over America the movies discovered the muddy morality that exists in the real world. Our patriotic heroes could have flaws, and our mortal enemies could exhibit a recognizable humanity. The whites and blacks of the past are today’s grays, and what was once a revelation – that good guys can be troubled, weak and filled with doubt – is now the norm. Basically if you’re going to make a war movie it better be packed with more than a squad of morally challenged soldiers.
Fury, the new film from writer/director David Ayer that leaves his precious Los Angeles streets behind in favor of the blood-soaked fields and shell-shocked towns of World War II Germany, takes those now familiar character staples and drops them into a far less common environment – the inside of a lumbering but deadly M4 Sherman tank.
Sgt. Don Collier (Brad Pitt) and his four-man tank crew have been together for a long time, but their latest battle leaves their rumbling beast damaged and one of the men dead. They pick up a green replacement (Logan Lerman) and head back into the fray, but as the war and the men’s time in it winds down the new recruit is forcibly brought up to speed by a crew as hollowed-out as the tank in which they’re riding.
We’re told early on (via onscreen text) that Allied tanks were lesser beasts than the famed and feared German models, and our first image is of a smoke-filled field transformed into a graveyard for man and machine. Disabled and destroyed tanks litter the landscape, but as a German officer on horseback trots between the wreckage he’s jumped and viciously dispatched by Collier. Their ruse successful, they start up their tank – nicknamed “Fury” – and limp back to base.
The crew consists of the driver Garcia (Michael Peña), the main gunner Swan (Shia LaBeouf) and shell loader/mechanic Travis (Jon Bernthal). Fresh-faced Ellison’s (Lerman) training as a clerk has most definitely not prepared him for the horrors he’s soon to face – starting, quite literally, with half of his predecessor’s face which still litters the seat he’ll be taking – but when Fury and her crew head back into battle the men impart their wisdom through acts of both kindness and cruelty.
The ultimate goal is to teach Ellison, and the viewers, of the necessity and inevitability of mankind’s grimmest and most inhumane moments without which there could never be the opposite. It’s a familiar refrain – think A Few Good Men’s Col. Jessup screaming “You want me on that wall!” – and it’s not the only obvious element rolling through the film. Ellison’s naive newcomer is a genre cliché, and repeatedly telling us that this particular tank crew is incredibly lucky to have survived so long together unscathed tells even the most inexperienced viewer that change is coming. Specifics aside, if you’ve seen even a small handful of war films you’ll have a fairly accurate idea as to where the film is ultimately heading with its characters.
Happily there’s much more to Fury than just its story beats though, and first on that list is the tank action. The hulking, motorized weapons have been featured in many war films over the years, but there aren’t that many that place the tanks front and center throughout the film. 1943’s Sahara comes to mind along with the more recent The Beast and Lebanon (which takes place entirely inside of a tank), but there aren’t too many more. (Sorry, the James Garner-starring Tank doesn’t quite count.)
Ayer captures and frames these mechanized, armored war chariots in all their ugliness and beauty both inside and out. We feel the claustrophobic camaraderie within its shell as the men live and fight in their tight, metallic confines, but we also experience the earth-shattering motion and destruction occurring outside. Scenes of a mundane nature give way to suspensefully-staged games of cat and mouse and powerful stretches of combat with impacts and explosions shaking us in our own seat. The scenes are as immersive and tangible as you would want to get.
Ayer’s world is grimy, muddy and sad, and while his characters are on a familiar and seemingly obvious trajectory there are a couple stops along the way that stand out without the benefit of tanks battling in the background. The first involves a harsh lesson Collier feels compelled to teach Ellison, and the second features a lesson of an entirely different stripe. They encounter two local women in an apartment building located in a city the Allies have just captured, and Collier uses the opportunity to find and exhibit civility, grace and humanity sheltered from the death and destruction outside the walls. There’s a rare calm here, and while it’s soon shattered with tension and fear the sequence exists as a pocket of genteel, distressing beauty.
The cast is uniformly fine even if some of them do fit too simply into the roles of soldiers hardened by war, but it’s Lerman and LaBeouf that stand out. (No, you didn’t read that wrong.) Pitt is solid here – although he does slip into his Inglourious Basterds/Aldo Raines voice on occasion – and shows again that he’s a “movie star” capable of grit and gravitas when necessary. Lerman doesn’t stretch too far outside of his comfort zone either, but he delivers innocence and a will to resist what he sees as wrongdoing with a frequently devastating mix of fear and rage. LaBeouf meanwhile reminds us that he can act with genuine emotion and ferocity. He manages more with his eyes here than his whole body has delivered in the past five years, and his character, a man of religious conviction trapped in hell struggling to see the light above it all, becomes a powerfully rendered dilemma on two legs.
Fury is Ayer near his most sincere – only End of Watch surpasses it in that regard – and it’s not really his biggest strength. He excels instead at the pulpier, broader and bigger moments where men are dropped into realities both convincing and cartoonish. Message movies are beyond his reach yet he insists on reminding us that war is hell, but the louder he yells it the less impassioned it feels. Or maybe it’s just getting drowned out by the glorious sounds of tank warfare.
The Upside: Spectacular tank action; visually/audibly striking and powerful; Shia LaBeouf impresses
The Downside: Frequently obvious, predictable and clichéd; confused morals (ie sorry, but that attempted rapist cannot earn even my begrudging respect and appreciation)
On the Side: This is reportedly the first time an actual working Tiger tank from WWII has been used in a film. The filmmakers were granted access by the Bovington Tank Museum to use the only fully functioning one in the world.