A film review by Craig J. Koban October 24, 2014

RANK: #25

FURY jjj

2014, R, 134 mins.


Brad Pitt as Wardaddy  /  Shia LaBeouf as Boyd 'Bible' Swan  /  Logan Lerman as Norman Ellison  /  Jon Bernthal as Grady Travis  /  Xavier Samuel as Lt. Parker  /  Michael Peña as Gordo Garcia 

Written and directed by David Ayer

The war genre has become such a prevalent one for so many decades that finding a new and refreshing spin on it must be a daunting challenge for modern filmmakers. 

Writer/director David Ayer (who wrote TRAINING DAY and recently directed END OF WATCH and the very underrated SABOTAGE from earlier this year) opts to shed light on a very seldom seen facet of WWII on the silver screen: tank warfare.  In pure hindsight, it’s kind of astounding how so few past war films have focused on this distinct aspect of the global conflict, perhaps because of the logistical challenge of shooting in the tight confines of a Sherman tank and making the proceedings look visual interesting.  Ayer seems more than equal to the task, as he not only conveys the brutal and barbaric truths of combat, but he also manages to relay the hellishly claustrophobic conditions that soldiers worked in while in those armored vehicles.  In many ways, the tank was their only home. 

Alas, the suffocating sense of isolation that these men dealt with hovers over every waking moment of FURY.  The film is set during the final sections of WWII as the Allied forces were advancing towards Berlin, leaving the Germans bracing themselves for one last massive defensive (Hitler was even willing to dress women and children in combat fatigues in order to secure his country’s future).  It’s April 1945 and we are introduced to The U.S. Army’s 2nd Armored Division that was leading the charge to defeat Germany once and for all.  Lead by the rugged, shell-shocked, and ruthlessly determined Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt), his M4A3E9 Sherman tank is handled by his five-man crew, made up of the faith and God loving Boyd Swan (Shia LaBeouf), the thick skulled trouble maker Grady Travis (Jon Bernthal), and immigrant Gordo Garcia (Michael Pena). 

The fifth man to join the team is a military office boy turned soldier Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a meek lad that – based on outward appearances – doesn’t look even qualified to hold a gun.  Needless to say, Norman wishes to have no part in the bloody combat to come as the tank’s new gunner, but Don and as his crew seem equally unwilling to have such a greenhorn on their team during such a pivotal moment in the war.  After a series of skirmishes and battles – during which time Norman learns of the nightmarish conditions that exist on the battlefields of Europe – the team is led on a mission to guard a vital crossing of military importance, but when they are stranded alone – outgunned and outnumbered – by an approaching German squadron of over 300 infantry men.  Don and his crew have to decide whether or not to make one dangerous suicidal last stand. 



FURY, on a pure visual level, packs a strong visceral wallop and is arguably one of the finest looking war films of recent memory.  Ayer wisely understands that the key to selling the conditions of working in the tiny confines of those Sherman tanks is to stage as many scenes as possible within the tanks themselves, and he does a bravura job of making viewers feel like they’re silent and invisible eyewitnesses inside these war machines.  The details are crucial to nailing the look of the period and time as well, and Ayer captures the some truly haunting images of smoked filled, battle fatigued landscapes (the opening shots of the film are breathtakingly surreal and harsh) while generating moments of palpable terror as Don and his band of brothers brace themselves for anything he enemy has to offer.  Much like END OF WATCH – which depicted the day-in-the-life of patrolling cops with an in-the-moment veracity and sense of immediacy – FURY brilliantly evokes a time and place of both heroism and bravery beset with ruthless savagery at the same time. 

Trying to make tank battle sequences look dynamic and exhilarating is certainly a challenge too (they are, after all, relatively slow moving and lumbering vehicles with limited range of motion), but Ayer crafts genuine thrills, especially in one superbly envisioned sequence of a trio of Sherman tanks squaring off against a much larger and more impervious German Tiger Tank.  Juxtaposing the exterior shots with those of Don and his motley crew desperately trying to eek out victories using cunning intuition and some gutsy, impromptu decision making also shows the psychological mindsets of these men in combat.  Don’s squad may never have been friends in the real world, but in the tank and in war they are a cohesively lethal force that feed off of each other’s instincts. 

FURY is not all about the ravages of combat, though, as it does manage to focus on strong character dynamics as well.  Pitt, no stranger to WWII films (INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS), has perhaps never played a more grounded character that’s so morally compromised in his career.  Initially, Don seems like a cruel, emotionless, and grotesque ringleader of his men, and one who's not ashamed to shoot a surrendering German soldier in the back…just because he hates them and they’re the enemy.  Yet, Pitt dives deep into Don’s tortured psyche and reveals layers of subjugated pain; he has perhaps been so corrupted by the war that his sometimes-deplorable acts may seem harshly understandable.  Logan Lerman – a strong natural young actor when compelled to be (THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER) - serves as a nice counterpoint to Pitt’s rugged and macho façade.  Norman witnesses what a dehumanizing experience war can be and how demoralizing it can be to the men he serves with.  Innocence lost in war is, frankly, a somewhat overdone cliché in war films, but Lerman sells this notion with a brutal, unflinching honesty here. 

Perhaps the best scene in the film is not on the battlefield, but rather a quieter and more introspective one when Don and Norman meet a couple of hiding German women (Anamaria Marinca and Alicia von Rittberg) in an apartment.  When Don and Norman secure the apartment, detain the women, and then lock the doors behind them you expect things will go horrible afoul…but then Ayer shakes up our own expectations and instead shows a glimpse of Don and Norman trying to eek out some semblance of normal and peaceful domesticity while they can before they return to the battlefield.  Very few war-centered films that seem to have more of an eye for blood-soaked carnage wouldn’t have the patience for extended interludes like this one, but Ayer's insistence on including such a scene in FURY shows that he’s interested in things beyond the tank and battle as well. 

I neglected to mention the other fine performers, like Jon Bernthal, who evokes a discrete humanity buried deep inside of his otherwise hard outward shelled man driven to near madness by war.  Pena is also solid as his soft-spoken soldier that sometimes lets drunken words get the better of him.  And Shia LaBeouf – a performer that has had a notorious history as of late of getting into trouble – has arguably never been finer in a film in his portrayal of his perpetually teary-eyed, scripture devoted man of God (his much publicized personal indiscretions have blinded many from seeing what a fine actor he really is when married to the right material).  These actors, along with Pitt and Lerman, work in tandem to create an invigorating tale of unlikely male bonding during a time when most men were more or less happy just to make it out of war alive, with or without friends. 

FURY does walk one slippery slope: Ayer certainly seems adept at showing a little seen theater of WWII with an uncompromising brutality, to be sure, but his film also seems to be – like classic examples of the war genre of yesteryear in the 40’s and 50’s – romanticizing and celebrating the rugged authority and valor of its characters a bit too much.  FURY contains moments of unquestionably gory and deplorable violence in its earlier sequences that certainly will unsettle viewers (as it should), but in that climatic standoff between Don and his men and those hundreds of SS infantrymen Ayer seems to be reveling in the action in a pure John Wayne level of thrilling escapism.  That creates an odd tonal disconnect in a film that wishes to touch greatness, but instead falls a tad short.  Nevertheless, FURY never overtly proclaims itself to be a war film of flag waiving patriotism.  It’s a superbly directed and magnificently performed platoon film that captures the heart of darkness in the men that were forced to reside in the belly of a mechanical beast.

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