For better or for worse, any film set in the combat of the Second World War is indelibly going to be held up next to Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.
It was a masterpiece, plain and simple. Not just for its brutally realistic depictions of combat, but because it so viscerally confronted the human tragedy that is war. And while 1998 was a long time ago, it still feels like a tough act to follow.
To its credit, Fury aspires to more than just Saving Private Ryan with tanks. There are times where it harkens more to 70s and 80s Vietnam films like Apocalypse Now than it does Spielberg’s epic, but it never quite escapes the conventions of its predecessors either, and the mix leaves the film feeling muddled and unfocused.
Set in April 1945, the final month of the European campaign, Fury follows battle-scarred Sergeant “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) through Nazi Germany as he breaks in his new assistant driver Private Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman).
As you’d expect, Norman is a little green around the ears when it comes to combat. His outsider status gives Wardaddy and the rest of his crew (filled out by Shia Labeouf, Michael Pena, and The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal) the excuse to spend the better part of the film explaining to him the cruel realities of tank warfare.
And that’s really where Fury breaks from previous movies set in and around the time period. Writer/director David Ayer is intent on exploring the darkness that can come out of people in times of war. It’s a theme that’s certainly been explored before, but rarely is it as close to the forefront as it is here.
To some extent, Ayer manages to get his point across. He’s just a tad heavy-handed about it. In the early going, every scene—both combat and non-combat alike—seems constructed to spell out to young Norman that there’s no easy morality when it comes to war. It’s never quite subtle.
There are times even—like an extended stay in a German town—where Fury seems to be going out of its way to balk convention and drive this theme home.
Which makes it all the more baffling when at about the halfway mark the film all but forgets about it and turns into a rather by the numbers war film.
It’s disorienting. Fury can never really decide where its narrative or thematic arc is trying to take us. It’s as if one part of the creative team wanted to go for something more thought provoking and the other just wanted a conventional war movie, so they split the difference.
If it were a true story, the meandering nature of Fury wouldn’t have bothered me so much. War should be shown for what it is and the concept of altering the truth to improve “pacing” or make things more fantastical seems to be missing the point entirely. But Fury isn’t a true story, which makes its lack of direction (and the rather rote ending) all the more confusing.
In another sense though, the shift is refreshing. Fury spends so much energy in its former half trying – and not always gracefully – to explore the difficult ethics of the war it forgets that there’s something inherently unique about the fact that we’re following a tank crew around. It’s a sphere that hasn’t been shown on the big screen before and the intricacies and tactics of it are fascinating.
But in all the shuffle, I almost missed the fact that this group doesn’t actually encounter another tank until the start of its final act.
And given the intensity of that particular scene, it makes you wonder why it took them so long. It points to a deeper issue in Fury—there’s a deciding lack of scope. The war feels small here, and not in a good way.
Part of that could be due to budget. Clearly, Ayer didn’t get the same money that Spielberg and some of those who followed him got (though the difference is less than you would think).
Still, if you look at what, say, HBO was able to do with the Band of Brothers miniseries (which came in at about $12.5 million per hour of television) one would have expected a bit more.
In truth, Fury is a difficult one to peg down. It seems equally likely to please as it does to disappoint.
If anything, it offers a competent glimpse into the troubled realities of war and the trauma inflicted on those caught in the middle of it, even if there are other films that do it better.
Final Score: 2.5/5