Earlier this year, there was a little movie called The Monuments Men. I gave the film a negative review (as did most critics) because it leaned far too heavily on comic relief and charm. In a WWII movie, those things should definitely be the exception and not the rule. If we’re going to hear a story set in the middle of a battlefield in Germany, we need life-or-death tension and a proper sense of scale for all the millions who died in the battle for world domination.

So here’s Fury, which sets itself firmly on the other side of the spectrum. Perhaps too far for its own good, in fact.

A title card helpfully sets our stage in April of 1945. The Nazis are just about defeated, which means that they’re getting desperate. Hitler is throwing every last thing he has at the Allied forces, even going so far as to force women and children onto the front lines. Naturally, this puts the Allied soldiers in the difficult position of having to fight and kill armed children. Even worse, it gets harder to tell the Germans apart: Which of them want to keep on fighting, and which of them genuinely want to surrender because they’re tired of the Third Reich’s bullshit?

This is the mess in which we meet the eponymous Fury, a tank manned by our cast of main characters. Brad Pitt plays the leader of the group, name of Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier. Shia LaBeouf plays Technician Boyd “Bible” Swan, the gunner and resident chaplain. Then there’s Pfc. Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal), who’s not only the loader and mechanic, but also the most outrageously violent caveman in the crew. And believe me, that’s saying a lot. Last but not least is Cpl. Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena), who drives the tank. There would be a fifth member to introduce, but Gordo’s co-pilot got his head blown off at some point just before the movie starts.

Seriously, we actually see bits of the guy’s face splattered on the inside of the tank. In close-up. But we’ll get back to that point.

Anyway, the Fury crew is now in need of a fifth member. Enter Pvt. Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) who enlisted only eight weeks ago. Never mind that he was trained as an administrative assistant and he’s never seen the inside of a tank before, the army needs tank operators, so it’s off to the battlefield with him.

Needless to say, Ellison is in a very tight spot. He’s not equipped for battle in any way, and he certainly isn’t ready to kill a child. There’s even one point in the film when he’s told that he has to kill or be killed, and Ellison flat-out says that he’d rather die than take someone else’s life. Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with the other four guys who depend on him to help keep the team alive.

The film is very explicit in its statement that war is hell. Wardaddy himself says outright that “Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.” But the film goes a bit further with those sentiments, stating that war isn’t really about good vs. evil so much as it’s about bad vs. evil. It’s one of those moments in life — blown up to a global scale — when there are simply no good options to choose from.

The themes in this movie all boil down to the question of what’s worth dying for. As an example, there are Germans who’d kill to save their homeland from invaders, and there are Germans who don’t think that Hitler’s regime is worth dying for. We even get a look at some Germans who really did die for their refusal to fight the Allies. As for the Fury crew, they keep on fighting to help save their compatriots in the tank, certain in the knowledge that any of them would (and probably did) take a bullet for each other. And anyway, it’s not like anyone ever needed a reason to kill a Nazi in time of war.

Our leads have no shortage of reasons to kill. Their given reasons to keep on living, however, are scarce.

At no point in the movie did anyone in our main cast — not even Ellison — give any indication of what was waiting for them back in America. I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what any of these guys possibly thought they’d be doing if they ever survived the war. By all appearances, it would seem that every crew member of the Fury — Travis most of all — was put on this planet for the sole purpose of killing Nazis. Needless to say, this was a huge missed opportunity to develop the characters into more relateable people. Granted, the characters still have enough personality and fantastic interplay to keep the emotional investment high, but every last bit counts in a film like this one.

Then there’s the matter of Irma and Emma. See, a lot of screen time is given to a sequence in which Wardaddy and Ellison come across a couple of friendly German women (respectively played by Anamaria Marinca and Alicia von Rittburg) in a town recently captured by American troops. Everyone gets along just fine and it looks like they’re having a peaceful, civilized time together. Right up until the rest of Wardaddy’s crew barges in and acts like a bunch of drunken jackasses. The sequence makes a lot of sense symbolically, illustrating how war tends to ruin just about everything. But from a character standpoint, it’s horribly rushed and contrived. Way too many actions in that sequence are motivated more by plot and less by the characters themselves.

As for the cast, the standouts are Brad Pitt and Logan Lerman. And I mean that in a bad way. Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, and even Shia LaBeouf all do fantastic jobs of blending into their characters, but I could never bring myself to forget that I was watching performances by Brad Pitt and Logan Lerman. I’m not really sure what it is about Pitt (his slicked-back hair certainly doesn’t help), but he has way too much movie star shine to play a role in a film this gritty and “realistic.” Wardaddy looks and acts exactly like the guy that Lt. Aldo Raine was pretending to be, and I simply couldn’t convince myself otherwise. As for Lerman, he’s just not ready for a film of this scale. I admire the guy for his ambition, and he’s clearly putting in a great deal of effort, but he still doesn’t have the talent or the stage presence to hold his own against a cast like this. Moreover, he looks too naive and squeaky clean to look like he belongs in this gruesome war movie, and no amount of caked-on mud is going to change that.

And so we come to the elephant in the room: The tone. It of course goes without saying that any serious war drama is going to be dark and violent. That approach would be to the film’s credit, if writer/director David Ayer didn’t seem to treat gore and grit as an end in itself. There were so many times in this movie — most notably the entire first act — that seemed gloomy and mean-spirited for no real reason at all.

It bears remembering that the best war dramas — Saving Private Ryan being the definitive example — used violence and grit as part of an immersive experience. It’s all about bringing the audience into the warzone, not just showing us that war is hell but also making us feel it. By comparison, this movie didn’t make me think “Wow, it’s like I’m in the middle of the battlefield,” so much as it made me wonder “Why am I bothering to watch this?”

The exceptions, however, are the tank fights. When this film gets to the tank-on-tank combat, that’s when it really fires on all cylinders. The action is shot and edited to make the movements coherent and to provide a sense of speed, the latter of which certainly can’t be easy when we’re dealing with such heavy machinery. These scenes also show our main cast at their best, working together as five parts of a single cohesive team. Yet even these tank battles come with a few minor caveats.

Some critics will take issue with the level of violence in these scenes, as we see heads and other body parts blown to red mist in clear and gruesome fashion. I personally didn’t mind this approach, since it added to the “you are here… in hell” feel that I’d expect of a serious war drama. But if it’s not your cup of tea, I won’t complain. Also, as much as I love the visuals, I take issue with the portrayal of artillery fire. The Allied guns fired bullets that seemed to leave a bright red trail, and the Nazi guns fired bullets that looked bright green. It seriously looked more like something out of Star Wars than a WWII battlefield.

Overall, I think that Fury worked much better in concept than in execution. The characters and casting have some persistent flaws that drag down the whole movie, and the recklessly dark tone doesn’t help matters. Still, there’s no denying that the scenes of tank combat are superbly delivered, and the film has several bold themes that are made very interesting by the wartime setting.

I don’t know if I’d say that the movie is good or bad. I only know that if Ayer set out to make a film that pressed its audience into feeling something, then he succeeded. Whether that feeling is worth remembering, repeating, or even experiencing the first time is another story, however.

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