2 hours, 14 minutes
Since “Saving Private Ryan” shook the cinematic world in 1998, WWII movies have been on a steady path. Movies about the Vietnam War had already reflected the country’s views on that conflict — that the war was a misguided, failed prospect that ran young men and women through a meat grinder for very little purpose, but films about World War II had traditionally been different, more nostalgic and looking at the conflict through the lens of the strong moral foundation upon which it was fought. “Ryan” grimly showed that, strong purpose or no, it was a war like any other and it was hell.
This week’s “Fury,” brought to us by David Ayer, better known for gritty police thrillers, ups the ante on the grim and bloody, but still manages to make an effective, entertaining look at the final days of the war through the eyes of a tank crew.
Brad Pitt stars as Sgt. Don Collier, a tank commander who’s been through the ringer. Starting his tour in a tank in Africa, he is now driving through Germany during the final push toward Berlin. Just before we join he and his ragtag crew, their longtime gunner is killed in a rather dramatic and gory fashion, an event that has left the group understandably shaken. HQ has assigned a new gunner, Pvt. Norman Ellison, originally trained as a typist but now thrust onto the front lines. Poor Norman’s first job is to clean up the remains of his predecessor. As the Army continues to move forward, Hitler has, in desperation, mobilized every man, woman, and child in Germany to fight the Allied forces. Collier and his crew have seen some hard times, but it’s nothing compared to what’s to come as the Nazi regime refuses to go down without taking the rest of the country with them.
“Fury” is a pretty straight-forward war story, and that’s not a criticism. The stock characters and familiar situations make it easier to navigate through some of the truly gruesome violence. Ayer, however, I think missteps at points by making the movie so grotesque that it actually loses some of the punch I think he is going for. It is enough to see a tank running over someone without having to see the body actually burst apart, and when Norman is asked to clean up a recognizable scrap of someone’s face, I was pulled out of the movie while I considered the make-up and special effects departments of the production. I have no doubt that those things are accurate — I have never been in a war and hope to keep it that way, but often times these bloody depictions on-screen end up being more reminiscent of a horror movie, and thereby lose their true impact.
I was particularly impressed with the performances in the film. Brad Pitt is one of his generation’s best actors, but his weakest characters are those like Collier, soldiers, gruff and grim. Here, though, he manages to make Sgt. Collier a completely rounded individual, flashes of weakness coming through the ram-rod straight tank commander demeanor. In the end, I would have preferred even more of the mania and frailty than we get, but Pitt still does a good job with a stock character.
The linch pin of the group, however, is Norman, well-played by Logan Lerman. Lerman, better known for his “Percy Jackson” movies, does a great job of giving us that traditional war movie trope of the boy becoming a man, but does one better as his character seems to be aware of the cliché and is disgusted by it. Michael Peña and Jon Bernthal are both very good as the rough and ready driver and mechanic, both characters who would likely be derelicts in real life, but thrive in conditions of war.
Most surprising, however, is Shia LeBeouf as Bible, another gunner and defacto Second-in-Command of the tank. LeBeouf has become a bit of a joke of late as his off-screen antics have further and further alienated him from mainstream Hollywood, but here he turns in a subtle, measured, and emotional performance. In many of his scenes, those big, cartoon eyes of his are half-filled with tears, but rather than come off schmaltzy, the actor maintains a quiet dignity.
I enjoyed “Fury,” though like some of the grimmest of war films, it’s hard to watch at times. It doesn’t really break new ground, and though the perspective of the tank crew was interesting, it never really feels completely unique. Breaking new ground, though, isn’t always what you want, and director Ayer and his cast put forth a solid effort and deliver a very well-made glimpse into a part of the war that isn’t often seen.
“Fury” is rated R for gruesome, bloody violence and pervasive language.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.