Fury is a pleasantly nasty surprise. There is nothing in writer-director David Ayer’s filmography — and I include his Training Day (2001) screenplay in that statement — to suggest that it would be any more than adequate. Back when Ayer made Street Kings (2008), I wrote, “It’s all very loud and very bloody — and somehow agreeably dumb without ever being actually good.” Fury is also very loud and very bloody — and sometimes a little dumb — but it actually is good. At least, it’s mostly good. There is no reason it needed to be as long as it is — and several scenes could obviously have been trimmed down to good effect. Three of its five main characters are handled with great aplomb by Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman and, yes, Shia LaBeouf (despite an unfortunate mustache). On the other hand, Michael Peña’s character tends to drift into the background, and I wish Jon Bernthal’s hillbilly (and his pudding-bowl haircut) would have drifted out of the film altogether.
It is also worth noting that Fury is essentially a very old-fashioned war movie — but one tricked out with post-Saving Private Ryan (1998) gore. That may or may not be a bad thing, though I’d feel better about it if it was a little more consistent when it comes to movie stars. When you get right down to it, Ayer’s tank crew is nothing but an old WWII movie right down to its ethnically and culturally diverse characters. Had it been made in WWII it might have starred Errol Flynn, William Prince, Dane Clark, Arthur Kennedy and George Tobias. What Ayer gives us is just a lot more grim and a lot more bloody, but it’s only slightly more nuanced — and some of the nuances are pretty much window dressing. None of this, however, prevents the film from being a straight-up war movie. If that’s what you want, this has it to spare. It’s the kind of movie people call “unflinching,” which really just means grim and bloody.
There’s less a story here than a situation. Tank commander Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Pitt — think of him in Inglourious Basterds, only playing it straight) and his similarly war-seasoned crew, Boyd “Bible” Swan (LaBeouf), Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Peña), Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Bernthal) — find themselves saddled with wet-behind-the-ears Norman Ellison (Lerman) as the replacement for a fallen comrade. What follows is the kid’s baptism by fire as they go on his first mission, which, of course, turns out to be of the deadly variety. Let’s face it, no other kind of mission would make for much of a movie.
The characters are nearly as straightforward as the movie. The most intriguing is LaBeouf’s “Bible,” who is not only as religious — and prone to interesting (and peculiar) theological discourse — as his name implies, but is also generally bookish and even slightly detached. The only one with much of a character arc is Lerman’s Norman — who wins the name “Machine” over the course of the film — and it’s hardly an unpredictable one, but the ever-reliable young actor makes it seem more interesting than it is. But the selling point of the film lies in its war scenes, which is also why an extended scene — and a quasi-romance for Norman — with two German girls drags badly before too long. The battle scenes, however, are splendidly done, especially the final one where the five men and one immobile Sherman tank try to take on hundreds of German soldiers. Yes, it’s preposterous, and the very fact that they make this stand makes very little sense, but while it’s on-screen, it’s relentlessly suspenseful — so much so that it’s hard not to overlook the dodgy sense of it all. In fact, it’s good enough to make up for the movie’s missteps. Rated R for strong sequences of war violence, some grisly images and language throughout.