War movies haven’t progressed much since Hollywood first tried to capture hell on celluloid. While technology has helped the realism advance in terms of displaying the size, scope and carnage of the battlefield, few films have been able to add something new to the genre.
“Saving Private Ryan” is the movie people always seem to reference when talking about war movies—the one that re-invented what a war movie could do. If we’re being honest, I thought “Saving Private Ryan” was betrayed by some jingoistic bookends: one where the old man goes to the graveyard, and in the epilogue he asks, “Did I live a good life?” Thus his family consoles him before cross-cutting to a shimmering American-flag shot, cribbed from any Michael Bay movie. Blech. Spielberg couldn’t stick the landing. He had to go for schmaltz when a bleak ending would have been better.
“Fury” is the bleak movie that “Saving Private Ryan” fought so hard not to be. It takes a dark, painful look at the vulgarity of war. It shapes itself in the perspective of a tank crew that has been pushed to the limit as allied forces push their way toward Berlin.
“Wardaddy” (Brad Pitt) is the leader of the tank crew, which hasn’t seen a good day since the war started. They have toured hell, serving in the most war-ravaged front lines of the conflict. When first introduced, they are dealing with the loss of one of their crew members—merely another reminder of the infinite well of tragedy that befell so many.
A young soldier named Norman (Logan Lerman) is assigned to replace their killed-in-action comrade. He’s been in the Army for a total of eight weeks and is a warm body assigned to fill a seat. Wardaddy and his crew are less-than-thrilled, especially when he starts falling apart at the first sight of bloody combat. This kind of story is nothing new. The naive soldier story pops up in a lot of war movies, but few of them take it to the nasty place that director David Ayer drags his characters through in “Fury.” It’s like a greatest-hits collection of depravity.
I won’t lie: There are uncomfortable moments in the film. I’m sure most of them are realistic depictions of life in wartime, but they are so compressed over a short span of time that it almost feels like too much, too soon. Somewhat implausibly, Norman’s entire character arc—from fresh-faced newbie to valiant killing machine—is about 72 hours. I have no doubt that war warps men beyond recognition, but the expedited catharsis feels a little forced.
The cast is as impressive as they are abrasive. There is a family dynamic, and this crew is as likely to kill each other as they are to save each other’s lives. Brad Pitt does an excellent job as the fatherly, stoic Wardaddy. He’s a shell of a man, running on fumes and committed to his fellow soldiers in a way that few people would ever truly understand. The one common thread so many WWII movies have is the unflinching sense of sacrifice of the brave men. Watching Wardaddy and his crew stay with their wounded tank, as insurmountable odds threaten to overrun them, is the kind of noble bravery that never fails to stir the soul. Shia Labeouf, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal, and Logan Lerman all deliver solid performances.
The star of the movie is the mind-blowing battle sequences which are a sight to behold. There is no beauty to these battlefields. These are not the epic, sweeping war zones of movies like “Saving Private Ryan” or “Pearl Harbor.” This is down-and-dirty ground combat that eschews any sense of grandiosity in favor of smash-mouth battles that portray war in its ugliest realities.
The finale is a heartbreaking, heroic and harrowing bit of filmmaking. Ayer tries to use every cinematic trick in the book to pull audiences into this bullet-and-mortar ridden hell. By now everyone’s familiar with the war movie and “Fury” makes no effort to re-invent the genre. This isn’t “Inglourious Basterds” (despite Pitt’s involvement). Even though it charts out new territory, “Fury” is a prime example of a movie that excels on every level of production.
Starring Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf and Logan Lerman
Directed by David Ayer