“Fury” falls just short of greatness

By Cory J. Willey

(Giles Keyte/MCT)
(Giles Keyte/MCT)

On the surface, “Fury” looks like any other World War II drama. By the end, however, it reveals itself to be a brutal reminder of the horrors of war. It had the potential to be ranked among the genre’s best had it spent more time fleshing out its characters rather than focusing so heavily on gore.

Written and directed by David Ayer, “Fury” follows the crew of the titular tank. Brad Pitt’s character “Wardaddy” leads a crew made up of Shia LaBeouf’s “Bible,” Michael Peña’s “Gordo” and Jon Bernthal’s “Coon-Ass.” These names are all terrible, but luckily they almost never refer to one another by name.

We are introduced to Logan Lerman’s frightened and reluctant Norman, a new recruit who was supposed to be working a desk job but has instead been commanded to join Fury’s crew as a replacement for the gunner they have just lost. He reports to Wardaddy, who is angered by the news that Norman is his replacement for the best gunner he’s ever had. From here, we watch as Norman struggles with his role in the war as Fury moves towards a predictable showdown with a huge force of Nazi SS soldiers.

Pitt shines brightest in the scenes between he and young up-and-comer Lerman. It’s too bad the rest of the time he has to spend the rest of his scenes barking orders as a cookie-cutter hard-ass sergeant whose only signs of emotion are a few shots of him standing alone looking forlorn. Luckily, a large portion of the film concentrates on their relationship, giving us some sort of connection to the crew through them. They provide the film with meaningful character moments that otherwise would’ve fallen by the wayside.

Ayer really wants us to respect and revere Wardaddy as much as the crew does to justify the setup of the third act. Lucky for him, he has Pitt to lean on. Pitt delivers the best line in the film, about halfway through while speaking about the war, saying, “Ideals are peaceful, history is violent.” He delivers this so matter-of-factly, that it’s impossible to forget it after the credits have rolled. Imagine my surprise when I later discovered that, according to Ayer in an interview with the Telegraph, Pitt had ad-libbed that line on set.

Lerman does justice to his role as the timid Norman, similarly standing out in his scenes with Pitt. The two give us one of the best scenes in the film, in which Wardaddy sets Norman up with a German girl after they take a town, and they have dinner with her and her cousin in their apartment. It turns into a wonderfully bizarre and awkward family dinner when the rest of the crew turns up and discovers their Sergeant’s favoritism on display. Outside of this scene he is mostly directed to look scared and complain about his surroundings, until the horrors of war transform him into the soldier he needs to be. The transformation feels a little too abrupt, but that falls squarely on Ayer’s writing and directing shoulders.

The rest of Fury’s crew is more than watchable, despite being one-dimensional. They just aren’t fleshed out past these surface personalities, which leaves us with very superficially written characters. LaBeouf delivers a surprisingly interesting performance as the crew’s token religious man. He may end up spitting out one too many bible verses by the end of the movie, but it doesn’t distract from the moments in which he shows us a gentle soldier who truly cares about human life. Bernthal stands out as well with what little he is given. He plays Coon-Ass as a savage dog-like simpleton. Peña’s Gordo is the weakest member of the crew by far, which is a shame. Ayer has taken a fantastic supporting actor and asked him to simply provide a few moments of comic relief scattered between shouting Spanish angrily at the world around him.

It may seem unnecessary to mention, but the sound design and visual effects in “Fury” are incredible. Of course they have to be in a modern day war movie, but they give this film its own sense of terror that may only be rivaled by the likes of “Saving Private Ryan.”

Unlike “Saving Private Ryan” however, the violence feels over the top at times. Shots focus on gore for too long, and when tanks push through dark mounds that are almost equal parts dead bodies as they are mud, it goes a step too far. “Fury” definitely doesn’t glorify war but it gets far too heavy handed with its portrayal of violence.

Despite numerous, unintentional attempts from Ayer to drag “Fury” down to a mediocre level, the end result is a highly respectable World War II drama. The cast does as much as it can with so little character development, resulting in a war film that feels a step above the rest. If it wasn’t for a weak script and questionable direction at times, “Fury” could’ve gone down as one of the best films in the long list of World War II films. Instead it’ll have to settle for being one of the better war dramas of the past few years.

Cory J. Willey can be reached at [email protected]