Perhaps Brad Pitt didn’t get enough World War II action in Inglourious Basterds, or perhaps he wanted to make a movie that hewed closer to the truth, but it’s surprising to see the star return to killing Germans again with David Ayer’s Fury. Then again, there’s no denying he’s perfect casting: Pitt comes from Oklahoma, has always had a Midwest air, and watching in the film he fits in the mold of cinematic war heroes like John Wayne and Gary Cooper, which works to the film’s advantage. He’s the best part of a men on a suicide mission story as told through writer/director Ayer’s more modern lens.
Logan Lerman plays Norman Ellison, a young recruit who’s spent eight weeks in service (as a typist) when he’s thrown into the belly of Pitt’s titular tank replacing a crew member who died as the film begins. The tank is headed up by Pitt’s Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier, then there’s Boyd ‘Bible’ Swan (Shia LaBeouf), Trini ‘Gordo’ Garcia (Michael Peña) and Grady ‘Coon-Ass’ Travis (Jon Bernthal). Here is where the film feels most like a throwback to older war movies, as the supporting players seem defined by their clichés: Bible is the nicest of the lot and very religious, while the others are brutes, with Grady the most grating. Where the film finds new terrain is that the film seems okay with the viewer actively disliking characters like Grady and Trini – though the film can’t help but give them redeemable qualities toward the end. America’s Sherman tanks are no match for the German’s better machines, so their squad has been reduced to a four tank caravan as they make their way through Germany hoping to find some end to the war.
Don wants to break Norman in, especially after he flinches and doesn’t kill some Nazi children – which leads to American deaths – and here the film goes darker than expected as Don forces Norman to execute a German soldier. Norman eventually acquires a taste for blood, but it’s a powerful moment, and it’s followed by a sequence where Norman and Don have a relatively peaceful dinner with some German women. But peace can only last so long when your crew members are jerks and there’s bombs dropping. Eventually, the boys finds themselves alone and up against at least 200 SS members, who – according to Don – are the worst of the Germans.
Ayer’s Fury is mostly apolitical; while it is resolutely anti-Nazi, it doesn’t seem to be a metaphor for modern conflict or have much to say about Iraq or Afghanistan. The way it does seem most of the moment is that for a film about the war that Americans celebrate as a righteous victory, Fury makes a point that in war there is no winning, only not dying. Ayer has developed into a pretty great filmmaker over the past couple years: End of Watch really upped his game and 2014 brought two solid entries from him (this and Sabotage, which is flopped at the box office, but is well worth checking out). His next film is Batman spin-off Suicide Squad, and of all the upcoming DC films, it’s the most promising. Here Ayer understands that you have to do practical effects when you make a World War II film, and so – other than the tracers, which may be real, but look a little out of place – most of the action is practical, which means real tanks in real combat in real mud. And as there haven’t been a lot of films that have focused on tanks and tank-based combat (and there probably won’t be again, at least in a period film), there’s something exciting about seeing that presented in a movie.
Unfortunately for the actors, it’s also the sort of film where only Brad Pitt gets much of a chance to shine. You want to watch LaBeouf because of his recent public tantrums, but he does fine work, though he’s mostly backgrounded and reduced to his obsession with religion. Pena seems added to the cast to have a minority, while Bernthal gets to do the “asshole/least committed to the team” heavy lifting. Pitt gets to play it world weary, a character that (as is made explicit in deleted footage) assumes he’s already dead. Since breaking out twenty four years ago in 1991’s Thelma and Louise, Pitt has maintained his movie stardom by taking interesting roles and working with talented filmmakers, and other than some animated work (which is more playful and takes up less time), the closest thing he’s done to a paycheck gig in the last ten years is something like World War Z. Pitt has successfully done his own thing, and seems vested in curating his filmography. Fury is a win for him, though because of the genre, it feels like a solid three star movie.
Sony’s Fury Blu-ray comes with a digital copy, and the film is presented in widescreen (2.35:1) and in 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio. This is a film that should be watched as loud as possible, and the transfer is excellent. Though the film doesn’t come with a commentary track, it does offer sixteen deleted scenes (57 min.), which are a treasure trove. You can see that Ayer wasn’t sure about how much he needed to include in the final film, and made different decisions about key sequences, leaving himself options in the cutting room. Everything that made the final cut seems to have been the right decision, and this footage shows deaths that weren’t in the final cut, motivations that have been changed through editing, and all sorts of interesting details which could have tweaked the film. The rest of the supplements are okay, a step above bland featurettes, though nothing that cuts to the heart of it. “Blood Brothers” (11 min.) offers a look at how the five actors worked together in the tank, and how they felt connected through the pre-production training, while “Director’s Combat Journal” (18 min.) gives you Ayer’s perspective on the challenges of shooting action sequences and working with practical tanks and mud. ”Armored Warriors: The Real Men Inside the Shermans” (12 min.) gets together World War II vets who fought in tanks to talk about their experiences in the war, while “Taming the Beasts: How to Drive, Fire & Shoot Inside a 30 Ton Tank” (13 min.) talks about how the film was made using some of the real tanks from the war. The supplements close out with a photo gallery.