'Fury' review: Solid cast leads this strong, grim take on war ethics
This tank-centric action-drama might not go down as the greatest World War II ever made, but "Fury" is an exceptionally well-acted and executed thriller.
In short: During the last months of World War II, a grizzled tank commander (Brad Pitt) commands his war-hardened crew (Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña and Jon Bernthal) and a fresh-faced Army private (Logan Lerman) as their tank, nicknamed "Fury," pushes deep into Germany. (Watch the trailer)
Narrative wise, there's very little story complexity to "Fury," which actually becomes one of its strengths. The entire film could best be summed up as the experiences of a new Army recruit - who has zero battle experience - as he joins the very experienced and battle-hardened crew of the "Fury." Lerman's character, although skilled with a typewriter, has never killed another person -- and he's shocked to learn he must now machine gun waves of Nazis on the order of his sergeant (Pitt).
With its minimalist narrative, writer-director David Ayer ("End of Watch") injects each action sequence with incredible, nerve-wracking tension while also allowing the characters to command the quiet moments between battles. It's in the tense and bleak character-driven scenes where "Fury" separates itself from so many other WWII films -- and this is due entirely to the its core cast, who deliver compelling performances.
The thesis of "Fury" is clearly: "war changes men," a theme that is absolutely typified by this film's spectrum of main characters, who have learned to deal with the horrors of war carnage. While Lerman's character is a new recruit reluctant to kill another man, his new tank crew colleagues are far less hesitant to pull the trigger. LaBeouf's character is a quiet, God-fearing man who believes the Bible justifies his righteous slaughter as the tank gunner - although he's also just as ready to pray with a dying German soldier in their final moments. Bernthal's tank shell loader is a violent and crude barbarian who vacillates between gleeful killing and dropping in a thousand-yard stare. Peña's tank driver "Gordo" is a soft-spoken but no nonsense soldier who dutifully keeps the 30-ton machine moving forward. Finally, there's tank commander "Wardaddy" (Pitt), a veteran of many tank battles across the European war theater -- a complex leader who presents an unyielding front to his crew, but in his private moments he releases the personal toll war has taken upon his soul.
This ensemble cast deserves recognition for their team effort in bringing this motley group of Nazi killers to life. There are no weak links among them and they interact wonderfully together as a band of brothers tank crew who fight, bicker and joke together with a familial bond. These five actors are perfectly cast -- and "Fury," if nothing else, serves as a reminder that Shia LaBeouf (despite his off-set actions) is a truly gifted actor.
"Fury" is not centered on one absolutely critical "we must succeed in this mission or the entire war is lost" premise. This is a story of soldiers simply trying to survive from mission to mission. And in the primal quest for physical survival, the nightmarish battlefront has inflicted a spiritual toll on the soldiers.
Not to be outdone by its war-drama aspects, "Fury" is a thrilling war-action flick. Although the "Fury" is a Sherman tank, this movie quickly establishes that being inside an armored tank is not a whole lot safer than running across the battlefield on foot. And given how many German soldiers are armed with anti-tank weaponry throughout this movie, a general unease saturates each seemingly quiet scene as the tanks roll across Germany. At any moment, a U.S. tank can be exploded - killing its entire tank crew instantly. This relentless tension never allows the stakes to drop below life or death.
What makes "Fury" a really good movie but not a "great" film are its underdeveloped and predictable elements. Once you know "Fury" is a ceaselessly grim movie, the narrative becomes very predictable. Some of its story elements are interesting - like the Hitler Youth or German civilians skittish behavior toward American soldiers - but they are treated in a heavy-handed or leading manner. Virtually everything outside the tank "Fury" and its crew is underdeveloped to some degree -- although just about everything inside the titular tank is pretty incredible.
In short: "Fury" might not be the perfect war movie, but under Ayer's command, this is a movie that remains absolutely interesting from first to last frame.
"Fury" opens in theaters nationwide Oct. 17 and is rated R for strong sequences of war violence, some grisly images, and language throughout.