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Fury is a good, solid World War II movie, nothing more and nothing less. Rugged, macho, violent and with a story sufficiently unusual to grab and hold interest, it’s a modern version of the sort of movie Hollywood turned out practically every week back in the 1940s and 1950s. Today, and because it stars Brad Pitt in what deserves to stand as an emblematic performance, it seems like a bigger deal, and the film’s mild case of pretentiousness in the climactic stretch is its one notable problem. Whether women flock to see Pitt playing a brutal, war-hardened but wise soldier is a question, but guys will have no trouble jumping on board for this rough ride through the final phase of the war, which augurs a solid box-office run through the fall for this Sony release.
A Navy man himself, writer-director David Ayer smartly moves away from the feverish cop and urban crime dramas he’s written and sometimes directed (Training Day, S.W.A.T., Dark Blue, Harsh Times, Street Kings, End of Watch) to channel his dramatic ferocity into a story of the Allies’ final ground assault on the Third Reich. It’s a combat unit yarn, centered on a group of five led by Pitt’s Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier, a tank commander with the 2nd Armored Division who’s seen it all from Africa to Belgium and the Netherlands and now, in April 1945, deep into Germany where, although faced with certain defeat, the Nazis intend to fight to the last.
Coiffed in a striking cut, with the sides shaved close but the top more luxuriant — almost WWI Prussian style — Wardaddy is a hard man and proves it in the way he breaks in newcomer Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a green kid trained as a typist who’s abruptly thrown into a tank for the first time as the assistant driver. As a rite of passage, Wardaddy forces Norman to shoot a captured SS officer, and this will hardly be the only thing he does for the first time during the 24 hours the story encompasses, from dawn to dawn.
The other guys aboard “Fury,” the nickname that’s painted on the gun barrel of their M4 Sherman tank, are gunner Boyd Swan (Shia LaBeouf), a fierce warrior but also a religious and thoughtful man; his loader Grady Travis (Jon Bernthal), a scruffy, belligerent hillbilly of the first order; and driver Trini Garcia (Michael Pena), an alert Mexican-American with a taste for the bottle. To his credit, Ayer has written these men as something a bit more than types, especially Boyd, a role in which LaBeouf is actually appealing and strong onscreen for the first time in ages. Maybe the army discipline was good for him.
After the Yanks secure a town, there’s time for momentary R&R. Wardaddy, who speaks fluent German, takes the benumbed Norman under his wing and happens upon a nice apartment occupied by a mother (Anamaria Marinca) and her lovely teenage daughter, Emma (Alicia von Rittberg). Naturally terrified, the women are tentatively put at their ease by Wardaddy, who offers them some food. What seems at first destined to be a brief encounter becomes extended into something resembling a complex one-act play, simmering with innuendo, uncertain agendas, latent danger, sexual desire, mortal fear and — when the other men, particularly the uncontrollable animal Grady, join the party — disruptive violence.
In the end, it’s a poignant and tragic interlude, the best passage in the film, one that addresses the damage — psychological, emotional and physical — that war causes beyond the immediate casualties of battle. Its qualities also cast a shadow on the remainder of the film, which is occupied by a quasi-suicidal mission that Wardaddy is ordered to undertake by a captain (Jason Isaacs, sporting a thick New Yawk accent). The command is issued so quickly that it’s not really clear why it’s so important for Fury and three other tanks to rush behind enemy lines; the Americans know they’re going to win, so the puzzlement over the reason for sending men into such peril at this stage impedes one’s investment in the climactic action.
It’s this part of the drama that most closely resembles Samuel Maoz‘s 2009 Israeli film Lebanon, which detailed what it’s like for men to occupy a fetid, claustrophobic metal vault on wheels while being bombarded by hard-to-see foes. But plunking Wardaddy and his men down in such an impossible position doesn’t feel right dramatically, and the sergeant’s stoic reaction, while perhaps philosophically apt for the circumstances, introduces a note of windy grandiosity that mildly rubs the wrong way against everything that’s come before.
But even if his character is denied an entirely satisfying send-off, Pitt is terrific here as a seasoned pro who’s tough because the war has made him so but clearly has a lot going on inside; there can be no doubt he’s committed acts he regrets. As a brave, bold fighter and a thinking soldier to boot, he’s exactly the kind of man you want on your side in a tight spot and whom you’d willingly follow into battle.
As the greenhorn thrown into the deep end of war, Lerman (The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Noah) serves as a sympathetic viewer proxy who, even in one day, receives rich schooling from Wardaddy. The other men register solidly, and it would be difficult not to be touched by the girl played so nicely by von Rittberg (who played the teenage Romy Schneider in a recent German TV movie), who is pushed to a full range of emotional extremes in one afternoon.
Shot on film on English locations, Fury has an attractively muted look that strongly reflects the weather, time of day and immediate circumstances; eschewing the handheld documentary look he employed with Ayer on End of Watch, cinematographer Roman Vasyanov goes the other way here with what one might call a look of rugged refinement. The tanks, uniforms, equipment and sets all contribute to a vivid sense of realism.
Production: Columbia Pictures, QED International, Le Grisbi, Crave Films
Cast: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, Jason Isaacs, Brad William Henke, Jim Parrack, Xavier Samuel, Scott Eastwood, Kevin Vance, Anamaria Marinca, Alicia von Rittberg
Director-screenwriter: David Ayer
Producers: Bill Block, David Ayer, Ethan Smith, John Lesher
Executive producers: Brad Pitt, Sasha Shapiro, Anton Lessine, Alex Ott, Ben Waisbren
Director of photography: Roman Vasyanov
Production designer: Andrew Menzies
Costume designer: Owen Thornton
Editors: Dody Dorn, Jay Cassidy
Music: Steven Price
Casting directors: Mary Vernieu, Lindsay Graham
Rated R, 134 minutes
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