Film Review | Fury

There’s a basically fun film in here, but its grasping attempts to be more than a ‘warsploitation’ romp distract from its key pleasures. 

Fury Road: Brad Pitt is killing Nazis again
Fury Road: Brad Pitt is killing Nazis again

“Ideals are peaceful. War is violent.” This pithy line is uttered by the equally taciturn ‘Wardaddy’ (Brad Pitt) about the halfway mark of writer-director David Ayer’s tail-end-of-WWII drama Fury, and it provides about an apt a summary as we’re ever going to get about this frank – and bloody – illustration of the horrors of war.

Though its tank-based battle sequences are superbly realised – hitting the spot as audience-pleasing action set pieces – and the overall griminess of the world Ayer is at pains to depict as being entirely free of glamour, a disappointing recourse to cliché robs the film of the powerful emotional punch it strains to throw.

It’s the tail end of the Second World War, and the Allies are winning. But the Germans still have to be faced on their home turf, and a weary force is pitted against an efficient and mobilised set of SS regiments. We zoom in on battle-hardened US Army Staff Sergeant in the 66th Armored Regiment, 2nd Armored Division named Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier (Pitt), who commands an M4A3E8 Sherman tank named ‘Fury’ and its five-man, all-veteran crew: Boyd ‘Bible’ Swan (Shia LaBeouf), gunner; Grady ‘Coon-Ass’ Travis (Jon Bernthal), loader; and Trini ‘Gordo’ Garcia (Michael Peña), driver.

After their assistant driver/bow gunner is killed, the team get a replacement in the form of green-as-can-be military clerk Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman). Thrown into the deep end, Norman finds it nigh-impossible to come to terms with the direct brutality he’s asked to be a part of, which in turn makes it difficult for him to integrate with the tight-knit crew aboard the ‘Fury’.

But the young soldier is forced to shed his skin on the go, with dubious instruction on the part of Wardaddy that stretches the limits of the term ‘tough love’.

And therein lies the problem. It’s good that the audience has a familiar way into the madness of war through the naïve eyes of Norman. But his development is so formulaic that it clashes head-on with the dogged and dirty realism of the rest of the film. It’s a hero’s journey that makes it a point to tick all the boxes diligently and explicitly, and the apparent necessity to bang the audience over the head with it distracts from the immersive – if deliberately tough to swallow – world that Ayer and his cinematographer diligently craft around Norman’s story.

Though his forced introduction to the brutality he’s subsequently expected to mete out is effective enough (being cringe worthy in all the right ways), a micro-romance is shoehorned in right at the middle – also with the intention of teaching the boy a lesson. Sadly, Ayer eschews all subtlety, resulting in an arc that only slows down the tempo for very little reward.

The middle section in which this mishap occurs – ostensibly a spot of ‘down time’ but laced with too much dread to really offer any respite – is not the worst idea for a pace-changing sequence, in theory.

Spoiling the details would reveal too much of its dynamic – particularly since its overall contours are rather predictable – but suffice it to say that it shows how alien the ideological narratives of war are to individuals who are not politicians. It reaffirms that a universal idea of humanity persists beyond national borders, even among enemies.

It’s one way Ayer tries to wrest his film away from the pitfalls of American jingoism, but don’t be fooled: there’s a pornographic thrill to the relentless mowing down of Nazis that undercuts any lofty notions of complexity for what remains an Oscar-baiting period piece.

But taken simply as such – i.e., as an old school gritty adventure romp of the Dirty Dozen (1967) variety – it can be enjoyed with gusto, even if Ayer piles on grisly body horror in an attempt to scale the heights of Saving Private Ryan. The director unapologetically subjected his cast to a rigorous military routine in preparation for the film, and though it’s always reaching to say “it shows”, there’s a lived-in feel to the crew as a whole that certainly comes across.

It’s a solid ensemble cast, but all eyes will be on Brad Pitt, of course. So it’s good that the star earns this extra attention. The gossip magazine whirlwind that surrounds every move Brangelina make – in recent months, this came quite close to home – can make us forget that Pitt is a powerful actor when given the space to spread his wings, as bravura turns in the likes of Twelve Monkeys (1995) and Snatch (2000) have shown.

Employing the same earthy Southern twang he used for Lt Aldo Raine in Inglourious Basterds (2009), Pitt imports the amount of unfiltered disdain he had for the “Nat-zees” in Tarantino’s film. But he’s allowed to rise above caricature here, and what emerges is both tender and menacing.

The Oscar buzz that will doubtlessly be heaped upon this enjoyable but jarringly self-important film will hurt our memory of it. There’s a basically fun film in there, but its grasping attempts to be more than a ‘warsploitation’ romp distract from its key pleasures. 

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