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« Meet the Contenders: Sam Rockwell "Laggies" | Main | Posterized: Best Documentary Winners of the Past 30 Years »
Saturday
Oct252014

Review: Fury

Michael C here wondering if we are ever going to get more films about 20th Century conflicts other than World War 2? How long has it been since we've had a solid Vietnam film? Did Three Kings and Jarhead say all there was to say about the first Iraq war?

At this point, it feels like there are enough World War II movies to reconstruct something close to the entirety of the conflict, across all theaters of operation. Audiences can be forgiven if the appearance of yet another crew of hard-bitten soldiers marauding through the German countryside in David Ayer’s Fury strikes us as more than a bit superfluous. The difference this time is that Fury wants to strip away the gauzy Greatest Generation glow that has diminished other depictions of this subject matter. No American flags flapping in the wind, no swells of violins, no famous battles. Just the anonymous, grisly work of tank combat in the waning days of the war, where the only task left is to feed enough of the remaining enemy into the meat grinder to hasten the inevitable German surrender.

It's a compelling argument for Fury's existence, at least for the first half of the film. As the tank rolls along, however, Fury surrenders its attempts to navigate the harsh no man’s land where ethics and war collide. What began as a corrective against the false comfort of your granddaddy’s war films morphs into a compilation of war movie clichés, complete with characters dying in order of billing, and glorious hero shots of doomed last stands against impossible odds. By the end it’s Frank Miller’s 300 with tanks. 

“Ideals are peaceful, history is violent,” says Brad Pitt's weathered tank commander Wardaddy. 

He is speaking to Norman (Logan Lerman), the green new soldier who was training to be a typist before being thrust into the position of gunner on Pitt’s crew of hard-asses. At first, Norman seems like he’s cut from the same cloth as Jeremy Davies’ meek corporal from Saving Private Ryan, but the crucial difference is that his failure to act when the Nazis are in the crosshairs is not a failure of will, but a matter of principle. Norman simply refuses to kill. When Pitt orders Norman to shoot a Nazi prisoner in the back to disabuse him of the idea that pacifism is a workable philosophy on the front line, Norman won't budge, going so far as to volunteer to have Pitt shoot him rather than have Pitt force him to gun a man down.

For a few scenes it looks like this confrontation between Norman’s youthful idealism and Wardaddy’s hard-won pragmatism will be the crux of the movie, but unfortunately Fury can’t sustain the tension. Norman’s principles crumble almost immediately upon witnessing first hand evidence that, yes, it turns out the Nazis are monstrous. In no time at all he is gunning down Germans with more zeal than anyone. No doubt Ayers intends this to be a statement on the untenable nature of moral stands in a war zone, but brushing aside the conflict with such ease grants no weight to that which has been lost. It is not a collapse of Norman’s humanity but a case of a naïve kid who needs to man up and shoot the bad guys. Good advice, perhaps, but hardly the poetic statement about the dehumanizing power of war at which Fury appears to be aiming.

On the other hand, once one surrenders the idea this is going to be a serious meditation on combat, some sort of Thin Red Line with added exploding heads, Fury settles in to being pretty effective action movie. Before Fury, I would have thought I had seen enough World War II battle scenes to last a lifetime, but I would’ve been wrong. Around the halfway mark Ayer delivers what is probably the best action sequence I’ve seen all year, a thrilling one-against-three tank battle over open terrain. It’s one of those movie scenes that make you exclaim, “I’ve never seen that before!” Even the big action finale where the wounded tank holds its ground alone against hundreds of SS officers makes for a magnificent spectacle, provided you can ignore the fact that it breaks with the reality of everything that preceded it.

So does one fault Fury for failing to live up to its lofty aspirations or give it a pass for what it ended up being: an engaging actioner with more on its mind than most films? I lean towards the former, if only because Fury casts off so much in terms of character and story in service of maintaining a narrow, bleak vision that never pays off much. The actors are all playing characters as one-note as their nicknames, even if they are all skilled at making you overlook that, particularly Pitt, who is all restrained intensity and muted charisma, and Shia LeBeouf who does an impressive amount of silent character building with his underwritten role.

During the extended slaughter in the film’s final stretch Fury’s drab khaki and mud color palette final opens up as fire torches the sky a burning blood red. It’s a vision of Hell, but also an indication that the Fury's true heart lies not with the moral complexity of its early scenes, but with the visceral simplicity of the carnage.

Grade B-
Oscar Chances: A definite contender in all the aural categories, which always love a good battle scene, and an outside chance in visual categories like Production Design and Costumes although I'm wagering it won't have the voter enthusiasm to win out over more popular choices. Despite grand ambition Fury doesn't have the substance to compete in the Top 8, although if Supporting Actor remains wide open I suppose you couldn't 100% rule out Pitt or Lerman breaking in (although I would classify them as co-leads)

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Reader Comments (12)

Michael: Pitt's too big for that fraud to sit well, especially since he doesn't have another movie this year. And, though SA is weak right now, PLEASE don't let it be so weak as to let Logan Lerman in.

October 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

<<complete with characters dying in order of billing>>

One of my favorite games is playing "dead meat" during the first few minutes of a film as characters are introduced.

Nice review. But I agree with Volvagia about a lack of acting possibilities re awards traction.

October 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

I have no interest whatsoever to watch this...!

October 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterA Mai

Great insight, Michael. I'll probably pass on Fury as I have a natural aversion to war movies, due to both the template and the carnage. I never have been able to get through Saving Private Ryan. It's just too real for me.

October 25, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

While World War II is hardly an underused setting, there are actually remarkably few movies about tank crews, and this is the best depiction of armoured combat on film that I've seen.

October 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSean C.

I don't like war movies either, with the exception of WWII. No idea why but I find this war fascinating (so I will see this). Perhaps because I heard so many stories about it from Uncles who were there when I was growing up.

But no film can truly express the horror of war like a cemetery (the opening of Private Ryan comes close as does The Pacific). Once in Berlin, I made a pilgrimage to Marlena's grave in a beautiful little cemetery on the outskirts of town. Still on the subway, but far enough out that it wasn't bombed to dust like the center city (meaning it still has trees). While searching for her grave, I stumbled on a group of flat stones. All alike. None with names, just gender and a death date (all the same). Some without gender, just a German word for body or adult or child. And no flowers.

October 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

I'm still thinking about this film. I think the first half is strong, that tank battle is tremendous, and I liked Lerman a lot (though I don't see it as Oscar nomination material). But that "300 with tanks" bit at the end ... well, I guess I just wish the writing had gone in a different direction there, because I think the film had a lot to recommend it, at least to those who'd be inclined to enjoy or respect it, up until that.

October 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterScottC

Just saw this yesterday and I come down on the other side - that it ends up working really well despite its possible higher aspirations. Definitely one of the better war films I've seen, especially recently. Also thought the cast was uniformly strong, especially Pitt, who managed to create a whole character with no backstory and hardly any characterization on the page.

October 26, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

It wants to be "Das Boot" (1981) on wheels.

October 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

I was finally iffy about Fury. The tank battle you mentioned in the middle of the film was quite good, and I liked the photography. However, the last stand battle was really too unbelievable. Furthermore, I found that the actors really couldn't hide the one-dimensionality of their characters. Pitt and Lerman were really the only two of the tank crew who were more or less likeable; the Jon Bernthal character was the most distasteful character I've seen in a movie in ages.

October 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBill_the_Bear

Kudos to Michael C for pretty much summing up everything else about the movie. I did like Jon Bernthal's performance too. He was the best of the bunch acting wise.

No comments about the half hour scene in the apartment with the two women? That and the tank battle were all I could think about after the film was over. I even focused on that in my review of the film here.

November 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSean T.

As with all Hollywood films, "Fury" has condensed six months worth of combat into a few days. Having said that, for the new generations coming up, it serves up good Socratic lessons about the horrors or war, with some depth of detail. For example, Brad Pitt's character "War Daddy", carries a STG 44: a Sturmgewehr 44 - the first assault weapon, before the AK-47. It suggests that "War Daddy" knows the lay of the land of war and is not adverse to picking up an enemy weapon if it is the best on the battlefield. This probably never happened, but through the lens of 70 years on, it hardly matters - the bigger picture is that of a soldier that improvises on the battlefield, using the best available, regardless of what "side" it comes from.

May 18, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBryan Cockel

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