Movie Review: Fury
By Matthew Huntley
October 23, 2014
Fury is a conventional Hollywood action movie that wants to be a serious World War II drama, but it never quite reaches that level of importance. The technical presentation is alive and visceral, with piercing sound and imagery that place us directly in middle of the battles; while dramatically, the film contains strong performances, a fair amount of tension, and some quiet, patient scenes that trigger a deeper reflection of war and its consequences, both from an individual and historical perspective.
But for any big-budget Hollywood enterprise - not just those from the action genre - such qualities should be standard. It’s up to the actual story to take things further, and unfortunately writer-director David Ayer falls back on traditional narrative devices and character arcs to keep things moving, and these prove to be less exciting and resonating than he probably thought.
Brad Pitt plays Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier, who heads a tank unit in the closing years of the war in Europe. He tells a younger solider he started out killing Germans in Africa, and now he’s killing Germans in Germany. For this war to end, he says, more people will have to die. He’s right, and as rough and grotesque as Collier may seem, he genuinely cares about his mission and the men he leads, even though he warns them not to get too close to their fellow comrades because there’s no guarantee any of them will survive.
It is April 1945, and as Collier’s unit moves deeper into Germany, his squadron is depleting. When the story opens, he’s just lost his assistant driver, whose decapitated body sits among Collier and his men in their bloodstained Sherman tank. Of course, each member of the group has his own distinct personality and nickname that make it easy for us to tell them apart.
There’s Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), the tank’s canon shooter who’s also a devout Christian. When other soldiers are on the brink of death, he holds their hand and tells them, “Wait for Jesus.” Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña) is the primary driver and token Latino. He wonders why he shouldn’t be allowed to speak Spanish if Collier is allowed to speak German, to which Collier responds with a practical answer. Finally, there’s Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal), a mechanic from Georgia who possesses all the typical Southern and hillbilly characteristics.
When they return to base camp, the army’s lieutenant appoints the baby-faced Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) to be Collier’s new assistant driver. Scared and inexperienced, Norman isn’t shy about telling the others, “I’ve never even seen the inside of a tank. I’m a clerk typist.” Norman is also expectedly naïve when it comes to combat and a moralist when it comes to killing the enemy. “It isn’t right,” he says, and at the beginning of the film, gentle Norman wouldn’t hurt a fly, but in just a matter of days, he not only becomes an accurate shot but also starts screaming F-bombs at the Nazis. His transformation from virgin soldier to full-fledged killer was a bit too quick and sudden to be fully believable.
The film is more or less a series of scenes that show Collier and his unit moving from one German town to the next until the SS is completely wiped out. When they’re not in battle, they’re preparing for the next one, and these quieter moments allow the film to pause its brutality and reveal the human side of its characters, which we appreciate. An extended sequence finds Collier playing matchmaker to Norman and a hiding German girl (Alicia von Rittberg). “If you don’t take her into that room, I will.” Later on, the others interrupt and recollect a disturbing incident they experienced during their service. It’s a powerful moment but I honestly wasn’t sure what to take away from it.
And that feeling really goes for the entire movie, because as thoughtful as the movie wants to be, it becomes clear the plot will simply boil down to a typical action-movie climax in which these five Americans face off against an entire German battalion. Ayer employs all the usual methods, like the heroes being able to kill numerous enemy soldiers in a single blow while the Germans barely nick the good guys, who must either die sensationally or martyr themselves.
So what, then, is Fury good for other than showcasing savage violence and occasionally commenting on the chaos of war? Better films have already suggested just how bleak, miserable and terrible war can be, and while this one starts out this way, it gradually sensationalizes the violence to the point where it seems we’re supposed to cheer when enemy soldiers die. Some shots come across like a video game as men’s heads are blasted off or entire bodies are crushed by the tank’s tracks. I’ve no doubt such devastation occurred during World War II and other conflicts, but here it seemed the movie was merely trying to stir us up with imagery in order to compensate for a lack of a concrete narrative or well thought-out message. What is the message, exactly? I walked away from Fury uncertain and I wasn’t convinced war played out as narratively clean and action-oriented as it does here.
In this day and age, when a movie claims to be “based on a true story,” we take it with a grain of salt because, as far as we can tell, the facts have been compromised for the sake of entertainment. But true stories still have value because we hope they keep the filmmakers in check to favor accuracy over Hollywood conventionalism. Had Ayer found a true account of a mission like this, one that more closely represents the tumultuous and unpredictable nature of war, we might have viewed it as a legitimate war drama rather than an action movie that happens to take place during a war.