Over the last several years Brad Pitt has carved himself quite a reputation for working with noted directors or writers on culturally significant films–voice work and World War Z (see review) notwithstanding. That’s part of why Fury is such a surprise. Not merely because it’s more Nazi killing, which Pitt has done before in yet another World War II movie, but because it’s such an inessential World War II movie.
That isn’t to say that Fury isn’t without merit. In terms of pure war footage, it is among the most outstanding films in the genre. Battle scenes build slowly and then erupt into tense and brutal exchanges where familiar faces are blown into little chunks across the countryside. Tracer rounds, which are wisely explained early on, lend an almost otherworldly look to the gunfire. At first possibly distracting, more like something out of a Star Wars or G.I. Joe laser battle than a 1945 German war theater, their presence becomes more believable given the time and purpose and, more importantly for this film, create a striking visual contrast to the washed-out browns, grays, and greens of the surrounding scene.
The eponymous tank, Fury, emerges as a vital character itself, a claustrophobic, blood-soaked machine that both saves the characters and makes them an easy target. There is plenty of stark, almost beautiful imagery found in the bombed-out landscapes with the sun struggling to peak through the clouds of smoke. The war experience is well captured through immediate escalations in violence, and the unrelenting and unknown dangers encircling Fury and its crew lend tension to situations we’d otherwise see as routine.
Yet, for all its visually striking violence, there is a very predictable pattern to every major battle in Fury. Added with the fact that it’s pretty obvious what will eventually happen to the characters (both through the trailer and through any knowledge of war films in general) and almost all tension other than of gunfire and cannons blasts is completely lost. No matter the situation, we already know the outcome, and therefore even the most dangerous fights are rendered passive.
Far worse than predictability, plot is almost completely absent from the entire film. We know that the Germans are losing and desperate, but the rest of the story is go here and get shot at, go here and get shot at some more, and finally go to this place for the climactic battle scene. That’s it. This could be seen as a statement on how little actual soldiers know of their missions, but it lacks the thematic resonance to come across as anything other than lousy writing.
Similarly, most characters, of which there are maybe eight if you include the tank, are so broadly sketched that every attempt at depth falls right out. Jon Bernthal plays basically the same grating, boorish character he’s played in each of his high profile roles so far, only without the redemptive care of The Walking Dead‘s Shane and with the crude redneck meter turned to 11, broken off, and then probably rubbed on his crotch and on someone’s face. Shia LeBeouf turns in a performance that is nothing but crying and Bible quotes and Michael Pena is Mexican… that’s literally how he’s introduced and the defining trait of his character.
Instead of developing these men we’re offered ribbing and bits of macabre humor that, while good, don’t serve to punctuate the situation. The majority of emotional heft is stacked on Logan Lerman, who does a very good job but is playing the same naive, misused kid that almost every war movie ever has included, and often times better. Meanwhile Pitt portrays the only character that bares any sort of conflict. At once stoic and sentimental, savage and noble, it’s a very good part elevated by the lack of interesting people around him.
In easily the film’s most exceptional and likely polarizing scene, the two actual characters take an extended break with a pair of German women. It’s a remarkable deviation in the pace allowing needed depth and meant to set these two apart from the barbaric horde below (if Fury is successful at anything, it’s completely ruining the image of the “greatest generation.” These are not honorable soldiers fighting a noble war. They are creatures living for nothing but violence). Yet, with all its trappings of civility, the scene itself glosses over its own potential violence through what the audience is supposed to read as genuine fondness and eventually descends into grotesquerie when the caricatures crash the party. It’s a brave scene, and one that easily stands out among the rest, yet it isn’t handled with the resonance or depth needed to make it great, and can be unfavorably compared to similar scenes in previous movies. And that pretty well summarizes Fury as a whole.
Perhaps what hurts Fury most isn’t anything that the film itself does, but that it’s a genre and period dominated by Saving Private Ryan. Everything that Fury does well – visceral combat, sudden tension, overwhelming battles – is done better in Private Ryan, and everything Fury doesn’t do well – plot, character, meaning, anything not having to do with fight scenes – is done better in Private Ryan. I couldn’t help thinking that rather than watch Fury in the theater I could have watched Saving Private Ryan at home.
Fury is similar to war itself: it’s grim, relentless, filled with stark and stunning visuals, a lot of people die, and ultimately there is little to no meaning. Perhaps it would be best for everyone if filmmakers as a whole stopped making World War II pictures. At this point just about every angle has been done, probably more than once, and probably best by Steven Spielberg. Anything new feels inessential by comparison. Besides, there are many more culturally significant things to be said about recent wars since, like World War II films, they never seem to end.