Mere months after the huge disappointment that was Sabotage, writer/director David Ayer returns with what’s probably his biggest film yet. Moving away from his urban crime comfort zone, Fury is a World War II epic, and sees Ayer apparently forgetting about Sabotage entirely and bouncing right back to the level of End of Watch, arguably even surpassing it.
Fury is unlike most WWII films in that it’s set right at the end of the war, in April of 1945. Opening text informs us that as part of a desperate final effort, Hitler has declared ‘total war’, mobilizing every man, woman and child in Germany. We the audience obviously know that the war is coming to a close, the Germans have essentially lost by this point and the characters seem to know it too. There’s a weary futility to all the killing, reflected in the film’s bleak tone, “It will end, soon”, Brad Pitt’s character states. “But before it does, a lot more people have to die”
The setting isn’t the only aspect of Fury that feels unconventional in a war movie, there’s also its focus on tank warfare. As I was watching it I was struggling to think of a single other movie that featured tanks so prominently. One might think these slow, lumbering vehicles would not make for an exciting action set-piece but Ayer steps up to the challenge triumphantly. There are several battle sequences in the film but the central one occurs when three of the American Shermans are on the attack to one concealed German Tiger I, which we’ve been informed is a superior machine. The ensuing combat sequence is a stunning, heart-pounding assault that Ayer shoots and edits brilliantly. Continually cutting between the interior of the American tank and exterior shots, Ayer conveys exactly how the tank operates without needing to have a character explain it. It’s spectacular, one of the best scenes in any film this year and may well go down as a classic moment in war cinema.
For all the originality Ayer brings to parts of the film, there’s also a lot of familiarity here. The characters, a five-man tank crew are all types we’ve seen before. Brad Pitt plays Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier, a hardened combat veteran who’s apparently intent on killing as many Germans as he can. He bares more than one resemblance to Pitt’s Inglorious Basterds character. He’s backed up Boyd ‘Bible’ Swan (a moustachioed Shia LaBeouf), a bible-thumping gunner, Grady ‘Coon-Ass’ Travis (Jon Bernthal) a volatile, unpleasant loader, and Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña), the driver. The primary arc involves a fresh-faced young typist (Logan Lerman), who’s only been in the Army for eight weeks being sent to join the experienced crew as an assistant driver. There’s nothing particularly new about any of these characters, and it’s disappointing to see Peña get a role with so little to it that he basically feels like the token minority, especially after Ayer gave him such a great role in End of Watch. Despite this though, and similarly to End of Watch, what Fury gets very much correct about its characters is their comradery. You really feel that these guys have been working together for a long time, their banter and in-jokes feel authentic and you understand the nature of their relationship, particularly between Pitt and LaBeouf. All the actors give strong performances but I think maybe Ayer deserves a special mention for drawing great work from both LaBeouf and Lerman, two actors whom I’ve never been impressed with before.
World War II seems different to look back at than some other wars as it’s often thought of as “The Good War”, the one that we were definitely on the right side of. In modern times most of the best war films however have tended to focus on more morally ambiguous wars. The tone of Fury is much more akin to that of some famous Vietnam films than WWII ones, but that doesn’t mean Ayer’s trying to suggest the goals of it were not just. It’s an ugly war though, and Fury wants to show you just how horrible it was. Ever since Saving Private Ryan upped the stakes when it came to portraying the violence of ground combat, films in its wake have followed suit. Fury has a number of shocking and graphic moments, for example when one soldier, engulfed in flames from a tank explosion, opts to shoot himself through the head rather than burn to death.
These are not inherently good men we are dealing with, and even if they once were, they’ve been so worn down by years of combat that they are past the point of no return. Ayer isn’t afraid to show them engage in distinctly dishonourable activities; they execute unarmed, surrendering enemies, and essentially rape German women in a small town. The latter is one of the films more troublesome moments, and I’ve heard a few dismiss the film over its treatment of one of these women but I think there’s more to it than that, its spoiler territory, but certainly gave me much to think about. The central scene in the town involves the whole crew all sitting for breakfast, it’s almost unbearably tense at times, and fleshes out their history as a unit with us learning a harrowing story from their past.
The general plot of Fury isn’t notably unconventional but doesn’t go where one would necessarily expect either. It’s quite episodic, but it also captures the notion that anyone can die at any point in war. There are times when they appear to be trundling along through a deserted area when suddenly a shot or explosion will come out of nowhere. It shows the death of American soldiers as quickly as they would really occur too, with no slow-motion or any other gimmickry. There are a few issues with it, Lerman’s journey from innocence to Nazi killer feels rushed at times, even if his first kill gives us another of the film’s most memorable scenes. I imagine there was more footage around the film’s mid-section that’s been edited out. Fury builds to a lengthy climactic battle scene that, in contrast to a lot of the film, seems a bit too implausible. The film sells it well enough that I could forgive it in context.
Even with these narrative blips, Fury is a step up for David Ayer as a director, he’s broadened his scope shown just what he can do with an action sequence. It’s too early to say, but I think it’s quite possible this will enter the pantheon of classic war movies in a few years’ time.