Fury - 'Brad Pitt and Shia LaBoeuf excellent in a film you won't forget in a hurry'
One tends to think of the British and American advance toward Berlin in 1945 as a cakewalk compared to what was happening in the east, but as David Ayer's Fury graphically illustrates, this was anything but the case.
In ways it's a war film like any other, using action to explore how men survived in combat and what the experience did to them. But Ayer's muddy grey aesthetic and charnel-house battle scenes do give the viewer a compelling sense of just how terrible a business World War II's endgame was.
Led by their charismatic leader Don 'Wardaddy' Collier (Brad Pitt), the crew of the M4 Sherman Tank 'Fury' has survived several years of combat in North Africa, Italy and France without losing a single man - till now. On the way through southern Germany, their assistant driver had his face shot off, so Wardaddy seconds a young and frightened draftee from the typing pool to replace him. Private Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) reads literature, looks terrified and is horrified by the casual brutality of his comrades, but will soon have cause to be thankful for them. For despite their bloodthirstiness and bad manners, Fury's crew are a sort of combat family.
Wardaddy is the parent, watchful and exacting, and his men trust him implicitly. His care-lined, dead-eyed face speaks volumes about the horrors he has endured, and his veteran colleagues Grady 'Coon-Ass' Travis (Jon Bernthal), Trini 'Gordo' Garcia (Michael Pena) and Boyd 'Bible' Swan (Shia LaBoeuf) are equally war-soiled. They hide their affection for each other behind profanity and cruel horseplay, and they don't think much of poor Norman's gun-shy cowering.
Wardaddy realises that the boy's a liability, so he bloods Norman by bullying him into shooting a German soldier they've captured. It's a horrible moment, but then this is a particularly nasty extended battle into which Hitler has thrown teenage boys and kids as young as 10. The Germans are defending with extraordinary tenacity, partly out of fear of what will happen to them if they don't, and if young Norman doesn't toughen up fast, he'll die.
The crew of Fury's problems are compounded by the fact that their Sherman tank isn't a patch on the German Tigers they're mainly encountering. And as Shermans are destroyed all around them, Norman begins to understand that only Wardaddy's quick wits and ruthless decisiveness are keeping them alive.
In the film's quietest and most absorbing scene, Fury halts in a captured town, and Wardaddy and Norman find two German women hiding in an eerily undamaged bourgeois apartment. Norman and the younger girl hit it off, but Wardaddy calmly gives the other woman some eggs and asks her to cook for them. An eerie, familial-seeming meal is rudely interrupted by the arrival of Coon-Ass, Gordo and Bible, who behave uncouthly and try to provoke their leader. But he will not respond, because his loyalty to them runs too deep.
The battle scenes in Fury aim, on a smaller scale, for the veracity of Steven Spielberg's in Saving Private Ryan. The war they present is terrifying and unvarnished, the carnage indiscriminate: tank tracks trundle over human bodies squashed road-kill-flat; heads explode in a cloud of vapour when hit by mortar rounds; and Wardaddy's first act in the film is to leap from his tank turret and stab a passing German officer through the eye. This is fighting of the worst kind, hand-to-hand and sickeningly bloody, its effect on all who experience it plain to see.
Fury may have loftier ambitions in terms of an anti-war philosophy, but despite its high production values in the end it's a straightforward WWII shoot-em-up that might have starred John Wayne. What lifts it above the commonplace are the grimly orchestrated battle scenes, and the performances. Brad Pitt says little but communicates volumes as the weary but redoubtable Wardaddy, and Shia LaBoeuf is better than he's been in years as the compassionate, scripture-quoting Bible.
They're both excellent in a film you won't forget in a hurry.
Fury, 15A, 135mins
READ: George Byrne's review: Fury - 'has some of the edge of classic Das Boot, which is praise indeed'