We’ve been making World War II films in America more or less since the war ended. That’s nearly seven decades of cinema that’s taken us across every battlefield, through every triumph and tragedy, and into the lives of countless heroes, both real and imagined. At this point, World War II film is a genre unto itself, with its own list of undisputed classics and must-see movies, and even when it seems we might be out of World War II material to bring to the screen, the movies don’t stop.
“Fury,” the new drama from director David Ayer (best known as the writer of “Training Day”) is the latest addition to the genre, and the latest film that hopes to install itself alongside the likes of “Saving Private Ryan” and “Band of Brothers” as must-see World War II fare. Does it succeed? Well, it’s no “Saving Private Ryan,” but thanks to a powerful cast, relentless intensity, and some inventive action sequences, “Fury” does manage to be a thrilling, respectable chronicle of war at its most desperate.
The film follows a Sherman tank crew fighting in Germany during the final month of the war in Europe, as Allied soldiers face fanatical resistance from Nazi soldiers more than willing to die for their cause. The Allies are on the verge of winning the war, but with German fighters (many of them children and old men) all around them who just won’t quit, it often doesn’t feel that way. Against all odds, though, Staff Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) is determined to make it to the end of the war with the crew of his tank, “Fury,” intact. Wardaddy, Bible (Shia LaBeouf), Gordo (Michael Pena), and Grady (Jon Bernthal) have been fighting in the same tank together since they first began the war in Africa, but their tight-knit, well-oiled unit is put in jeopardy when they’re forced to take on assistant driver Norman (Logan Lerman), a clerk who’s been ordered due to shorthandedness to fight in a tank. Wardaddy and his crew are relentless in introducing Norman to the horrors of war, and as the crew’s missions grow more and more desperate, he must learn to either accept the darkness of what he’s being asked to do, or die on the battlefields of Germany.
The characters envisioned in Ayer’s script are satisfyingly rough, and the story’s propelled forward at a gripping pace. Even the film’s quieter moments – including a strangely frightening visit to a German woman’s home between missions – manage to keep you hooked in to the screen, but it’s in the dialogue that the film’s greatest failings emerge. Norman is taught very visual, very obvious lessons in war by the action, and we can see how he reacts in Lerman’s face, but Ayer then takes time out of the film to have Wardaddy or Bible or Grady spout some platitude or harsh truth that was already evident in the events. It’s at these moments that the film stops feeling real, that it ceases – however briefly – to be a film about raw, brutal war and instead becomes a kind of sermon, complete with the occasional Bible verse. The result is a film that seems like it’s trying too hard to tell us something, or a film that’s trying to force relevance on itself.
Fortunately, those moments are shrugged off when you get into the very well-crafted, and often very inventive, action sequences. Tank warfare is, fortunately, one of the less-trafficked parts of World War II on the big screen, and Ayer takes full advantage of that, delivering thrilling and often horrifying action, including a particularly powerful duel with a German Tiger tank. It’s in these moments that the film delivers its purest jolts of adrenaline, and where the humanity of the characters really comes out through their fear, their intensity, and their camaraderie.
The cast, led by an authoritative Pitt, also saves Ayer’s sometimes clunky dialogue with a collection of powerful, vulnerable performances. LaBeouf rises to the occasion of this film, and when you watch him you forget all of the scandal that’s plagued his recent life. Pena reminds us all why he’s a rising star, and Bernthal walks a heartbreaking line between sadistic and terrified. Lerman might be overshadowed by his castmates, but he still plays the idealistic young soldier well, and makes what could’ve been a weak spot in the film a credible performance.
Unfortunately, “Fury” doesn’t deliver anything new in terms of a World War II story. In this well-trafficked genre of historical drama, it doesn’t have anything new to say. We know about these atrocities, these heartless acts, these desperate times of violence, and these noble moments already, and they’ve been portrayed by better filmmakers. Ayer doesn’t let that stop him, though. He embraces the tropes of the genre and delivers a surprisingly emotional, brutally thrilling tale of men on the edge that will satisfy war movie fans.