Fury impresses as both a good piece of cinematic art – and a great piece of action-thriller filmmaking.
Fury gives us a look at another terrible day in the lives of an American crew of the titular military tank, stationed in Nazi Germany during the closing days of WWII. Having survived a long tour of duty facing superior German artillery, Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier (Brad Pitt) and his crew – the religious Boyd Swan (Shia LaBeouf), redneck Grady Travis (Jon Bernthal) and stoic Mexican-American driver Trini ‘Gordo’ Garcia (Michael Peña) – are hit hard by the recent death of their comrade, Red.
That loss is only exacerbated by the arrival of Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a fresh-faced young new recruit who can barely fathom the fact that he is at war – let alone function as a well-oiled part of the elite tank crew. With the last of the Nazi forces dug-in deep and ready to battle to the last, Wardaddy and his crew must put Norman through a hellish kind of training day, so that he may survive the soul-crushing trauma of battle.
Written and directed by filmmaker David Ayer (Training Day, End of Watch), Fury does something slightly miraculous: It actually manages to find new space in the seemingly overstuffed WWII movie sub-genre, in order to tell a story that is both poignant and powerful in its themes and insights about war, while simultaneously delivering a fantastic and satisfying genre film experience.
Visually, the film is something next level for Ayer. While his previous efforts behind the camera – Harsh Times, Street Kings, End of Watch, Sabotage – have carried more flaws than his hard-boiled scripts (Training Day, S.W.A.T.), it’s clear in Fury that both passion and experience have culminated in his best work yet – by far. There is room for expansion on some of the more artistic visual concepts the film offers sporadically (the ending shot is powerfully memorable) – but on the whole, the film speaks volumes through its visual shorthand. From mis-en-scene arrangement and the spectacular visual/sound editing used to create tense tank battle sequences, to the management of tight space (inside the tank), Fury impresses as both a good piece of cinematic art – and a great piece of action-thriller filmmaking.
Ayer not only composes his best hard-boiled action to date (a type of action rarely explored on film, mind you) – he also shows impressive nuance and control, using silence and dialogue to create some of the film’s most thrilling or powerful moments. Through both well-written scene work and the impressive performances drawn out of his ensemble of actors (more on them later), Fury shows Ayer growing past old limitations and finding new control and fluency in the composition of his work. The difference in quality between a film like Fury and a film like Sabotage (both released this year) is almost mind-boggling; hopefully it’s the passion of Fury Ayer brings to DC’s upcoming Suicide Squad movie…
Of course, nothing the director had planned on paper or for the camera would succeed without the ensemble of actors needed to give it life – and in that area, Ayer and Co. hit a home run. Some may worry that Brad Pitt is simply rehashing his ‘Nazi-killin’ good ol’ boy from Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds – and while there may be shades of Aldo Raine in Wardaddy, there is a completely different depth to the latter, which Pitt navigates with nuanced and controlled intensity (with help from some good makeup work).
Shia LaBeouf, Jon Bernthal and Michael Peña offer great chemistry as a trio, while still managing to respectively fill their characters with enough emotional depth and backstory implication to make them into fully-realized and engaging characters. Each man can tell an entire story with the worn and shattered look in his eye, or the shakiness of his demeanor – just before kicking into the sort of crackling banter you might expect from a buddy-cop movie. The trio also manage to fit snuggly between the conflicting poles of Wardaddy and Norman, keeping the character drama unpredictable and tense in the best way possible.
Logan Lerman already put a crack in his Percy Jackson pretty boy persona with a well-nuanced performance as a sensitive and troubled teen in Perks of Being Wallflower – but he totally shatters that generic leading man facade with a breakthrough performance here. The Norman character is one that could easily have been cliched or very annoying (naive kid whining about war), but Lerman makes Norman’s idealism and principles into something admirable and worth protecting. He is sensitive in a sensible way; sure about who he is and his principals rather than being naive; and he conveys the trauma and horror of battle in a believable and understated way. Thanks to Lerman, the main thematic arc (Norman’s evolution while under Wardaddy’s command) is executed in perfect harmony with the story of the Fury crew’s challenges at war.
Actors like Scott Eastwood, Jim Parrack (True Blood), Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter), Brad William Henke (Pacific Rim) and Kevin Vance (Sabotage) have memorable cameos as various soldiers, while acclaimed Romanian actress Anamaria Marinca (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) and young German actress Alicia von Rittberg (pictured above) have two of the most tense and captivating bit parts of recent memory.
Fury is one of the best WWII movies – or war movies in general – of the last decade. It offers a fresh angle on the conflict (the closing days, inside a tank), and manages to mine both great action and deep, resonant character drama out of that equation. The directing and construction are excellent; the cast is both in synch and individually strong; and from moment one to final shot, the movie commands total attention and involvement. With a few more artistic flourishes, David Ayer may soon step up from cult-hit acclaim to full-on cinematic greatness – and Fury will definitely be remembered as part of the reason why.
Fury is now playing in theaters. It is 134 minutes long and is Rated R for strong sequences of war violence, some grisly images, and language throughout.
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