|Good acting, Shia, but I don't know about that mustache...|
American tank movies are few and far between in cinematic history possibly because of the less than enthralling claustrophobic quality of a tank. It might also have something to do with the fact that the German tanks were superior to American tanks during World War II so there aren’t many feel-good, gung-ho true stories to work with. This might be why writer/director David Ayer decided to write a fictional story for his tank movie, Fury. But while the film might be a bit gung-ho, there is certainly nothing feel-good about it.
Fury, at its core, is a miserable story about the horrors of war. It doesn’t dwell on the horror or even condemn it, however. Instead, the focus is on what war does to a man, or group of men, in this case. Fury is a warts and all depiction of brotherhood through war. Most war films cover this unique relationship, but few filmmakers have realized that the tank is the perfect setting to condense that complicated situation into a film. (The only film that came to mind as I watched this was The Beast, an under-watched 1988 film about a Russian tank crew in Afghanistan.) While the inside of a tank does not make for a compelling visual, it does wonders for character interaction.
The characters are what make Fury interesting, but also strange. The plot of the film is essentially about a newcomer, Norman (Logan Lerman), to the crew of the titular tank, Fury, and his initiation by fire (quite literally) into World War II. Since this is a fictional story, there is no historic grand battle for Fury to take part in, instead the plot is relegated to vague missions about “holding the line” and not giving up. The story truly does not matter since this is a character study. It is a strange character study because we learn almost nothing about most of the characters apart from their role in the war. Some might see this as a weakness, but it is actually beneficial to the story. Fury does not attempt to create complete characters, just men shaped by war. It isn’t important to know what Brad Pitt’s character did before the war. Perhaps it would add a level of complexity to the proceedings if it turned out that this brutal man was actually a librarian or something, but that would be cheesy and unnecessary. No matter what jobs these characters had back home, there job now is to kill other people. Fury attempts to show the disturbing effects war has on the soldiers. Whether or not it successfully does that is up for debate.
When we meet the tank crew, they are already battle-hardened and on edge. Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Pitt) is the tough leader, whose most important mission is to protect his men. (There is actually no point in naming the other characters because their names are fairly forgettable and/or underused. In fact, I didn’t know what Brad Pitt’s character’s name was until I looked it up on IMDb a few minutes ago. This all goes back to the lack of character development beyond the moment of each scene.) The other men in the tank are played by Shia LaBeouf (the religious one), Jon Bernthal (the redneck), Michael Peña (the driver), and Logan Lerman (the new guy). Just because the names of the characters are not important does not mean that these are one-note characters. It just means they can be identified more easily by their first impression.
Instead of getting to know these characters in depth, we just discover them in battle, which is the point of the film. If Fury has something to say about the effects of war on a person, then knowing anything about that character beforehand belittles that point. It does not matter what these characters were, look at what they have become. And they have become brutal, cold killing machines. This makes Fury more of a spiritual companion to Full Metal Jacket more than Saving Private Ryan. Although, tonally, this film is even more depressing than Jacket. All of the main characters say or do things that make you wonder whether they are “good” men throughout the film. They are never meant to be hated, though, quite the opposite. These men are meant to be pitied for what war has done to them. Because of that, and because of casting, it’s easy to end up liking this crew, despite some of their harsher moments.
Brad Pitt brings some natural authority to his role, and he’s as likable as always. It was a bit hard to divorce this character from the one he played in Inglourious Basterds, however. It’s not that they are all that similar (though they both are very good at killing NATzees…), it’s just that the roles are close together in his filmography. Bernthal provides the sole comedic relief of the film with his almost cartoonish redneck antics, and that is certainly welcome in such grim proceedings. Peña is proving to be a very diverse actor with this role (I know him mostly from comedies like Eastbound & Down and Observe and Report). Lerman doesn’t get a lot to do aside from look scared/angry, but he handles it well. Surprisingly (to me, at least), LaBeouf was the most impressive. Perhaps it’s because of his off-screen behavior, but he’s hard to take seriously. But here, he truly appeared to be in the moment, and his performance allowed his character to be the most complex of the film.
The performances in a war film are the most important aspect of it, especially if it is making a statement on war itself. But it’s also very important to present the action in a realistic way, as well. Fury has some of the most effective and tense battle sequences of recent memory. It is also shockingly gory at times. It does tiptoe that fine line between realism and glorification, but realism does win out, for the most part. There are still battle sequences that the more gung-ho viewer can fist pump to, but most viewers will feel the brutality rather than cheer it on. The only thing that hampers the action is the music.
Normally, the score to a war film is naturally patriotic, somber, rousing, etc. And that is as it should be. But Fury is an anti-war film meant to display the real brutality of the violence. There was no soundtrack during the real battles of WWII, and Fury would have been even more effective if the filmmakers would have left out the soundtrack as well. The audience doesn’t need “sad” music playing when characters have died to let us know that it is sad. It is just insulting to the audience to think that they wouldn’t know when to feel sad. Also, using music that sounds borderline militaristic during battle scenes takes away from the realistic tone the film was going for. It doesn’t ruin the film, but it certainly cheapens it from time to time. When it comes to disturbing violence, silence is the most effective option.
Despite that slight misstep, Fury should go down as one of the better war films in recent decades. While it wasn’t memorable enough to be considered one of the best ever (the topic of war has just been covered too much for new ground to be broken…), it has certainly earned its place as one of, if not the, best tank film ever made.
Fury receives a: