Except for its up-to-date effects and more explicit language and gore, “Fury” is the sort of World War II movie that might have been made fifty or sixty years ago. That doesn’t mean it’s bad; as a matter of fact, its traditional storytelling represents an agreeable throwback to a time when tales of combat managed to be viscerally exciting while also saying something about camaraderie and the effect of the battlefield experience on ordinary soldiers.
David Ayer, the writer-director, has traversed similar territory before, but in a contemporary setting on America’s city streets, in his script for “Training Day” and in “End of Watch.” Here, the time is 1945 and the location the western front, where German forces—including children forcibly inducted into the ranks—are fighting desperately to halt the American advance toward Berlin. The focus is on a single tank crew, headed by hard-bitten Sergeant Don Collier, nicknamed “Wardaddy” (Brad Pitt) and including the religiously-obsessed Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), Neanderthal mechanic Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) and driver Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena). Since their gunner was killed in their most recent skirmish, callow young Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) is assigned to replace him, though he’s a clerk-typist with no battlefield experience.
The tank, which has the word “Fury” prominently displayed on its gun barrel, is assigned by “old man” Captain Waggoner (Jason Isaacs) to proceed in a column with the few others remaining through several towns, and eventually to a strategic crossroads they’re ordered to hold against advancing enemy forces. Along the way all the other Sherman tanks will be destroyed, the final three in a compellingly-staged cat-and-mouse encounter with a larger, more powerful German Tiger Tank, until Fury is incapacitated at the assigned crossroads after hitting a land mine and the crew decides to make a solo suicide stand against the approaching squadron of SS troops.
But while those are the logistical details of the plot, there’s also a personal story parallel to it, in which newcomer Norman, initially squeamish about firing his machine gun (which leads to the loss of one of the remaining tanks), is hardened by Collier, who takes it upon himself—partially out of the drive to protect all his crew, of course—to force the youngster to learn to kill, and even to exult in it. There’s nothing new in this subplot about fashioning a neophyte into a real warrior, of course, but it’s played out here with considerable effect—even in what’s the inevitable semi-romantic interlude, in which the squad, after taking control of one of the towns along their route, enjoy a respite from fighting and Collier and Ellison, clearly the most sensitive of the group, share an encounter with two attractive local girls (Anamaria Marina and Alicia von Rittberg). Of course, that provides an opportunity for Norman to learn some valuable life lessons, too.
Throughout Pitt plays the strong man’s man, a role that once might have been taken by somebody like John Wayne, with an effortless mixture of sternness and sensitivity, and LaBeouf, Pena and Bernthal all do what’s demanded of them—which, admittedly, isn’t all that much—equally well. But “Fury” really belongs to Lerman. Ellison is the linchpin of the film, the character who changes and grows over the course of the narrative, not always admirably; and it’s through his eyes that we observe everything, including Collier and the rest of the squad. It’s not an easy role, but Lerman handles it with a degree of skill one would not have expected from his earlier juvenile parts, although “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” certainly represented an advance from his juvenile characters. He quickly gains audience sympathy and maintains it even as his character grows more and more inured to the brutality of combat. One can glimpse traces of what someone like Montgomery Clift might have brought to the role in Lerman’s performance, and that’s high praise indeed.
On the technical side the film is accomplished in every department, from cinematographer Roman Vasyanov’s carefully crafted visuals and Andrew Menzies’ convincing production design, which, along with the art direction (by Peter Russell, Phillip Harvey and Mark Scruton), set decoration (by Lee Gordon) and costumes (by Owen Thornton), creates a vivid period sense. The tanks—actual models from the time, though the interiors are built anew—obviously look like the real thing, down to the grime and the sense of claustrophobia. And editors Dody Dorn and Jay Cassidy have worked with Ayer to lay out the action sequences with a degree of coherence unusual in today’s films, while giving them energy and power as well. The pleasurably old-fashioned quality of the result extends to Steve Price’s background score, which mixes restrained and martial elements as called for. Even the opening credits sequence is impressive.
After George Clooney’s bloated, torpid “Monuments Men,” Ayer demonstrates that World War II remains a fertile field for Hollywood filmmakers, so long as they adopt the right strategy.