Written and directed by David Ayer (End of Watch), Fury offers a stark and unforgiving portrait of the closing days of the Good War in the European theater. Shot in hues of gray and brown, it presents a universe of steel and smoke and—most of all—mud: swimming with corpses, littered with dead trees, and endlessly crisscrossed by tank tracks. The performances are strong, and in technical terms the film is above reproach: This is almost certainly the most persuasive depiction of tank warfare yet committed to celluloid. Over the course of its first half-hour, Fury conveys, with visceral intensity, the experience of huddling alone with four other men in a tiny, vulnerable metal shell, while Hell breaks loose all around you. The problem with the film is that, over its subsequent hour and a half, it does little more than repeatedly convey that same experience, albeit at escalating levels of mayhem.
The plot is at once linear and episodic. Following the introductory scenes, Wardaddy and his crew are given a mission by their captain (Jason Isaacs): “I want you to rescue my guys, and take the guns out.” Following the successful completion of this task, the men are given a brief period of R & R in a captured German town. This intermission features an awkward morality play in the apartment of two German lasses, one that serves principally to confirm the First Law of Hollywood: Beautiful people (Pitt, Lerman, German actress Alicia von Rittberg) are inherently good, and ugly people (the leering, slobbering Bernthal) are inherently not. Then it’s back to the senseless yet disappointingly generic horrors of war: “The old man wants you,” Wardaddy is informed. “He’s got a mission.”
Over the final act, grim begets grimmer. Wardaddy and his men are hopelessly outgunned by an enemy Tiger I tank of almost unfathomable impregnability. (A historian and former Army tanker who sat next to me during the screening explained that de facto U.S. policy during the war was that a Tiger could beat eight Shermans, but not ten—so we simply had to build ten of ours for every one of theirs.) The crew encounters an unfortunately placed landmine and, later, a still more unfortunately placed SS battalion.
For fans of military valor and action sequences, Fury offers plenty of both. But as a narrative endeavor, it too becomes an increasingly muddy slog, riddled with clichés and derivative scenes. A callow, boyish lieutenant—too young even to shave!—is introduced in the first reel, only to die quickly so that his war-hardened sergeant can assume command. Lerman’s character will have an opportunity to prove that he is truly sensitive by playing the piano, and Pitt’s will have an opportunity to prove that he is truly Brad Pitt by taking his shirt off. We will be treated to scenes of men perforated with bullets, men hurled skyward by cannon fire, men with their heads blown off, men combusting like campfires, men crushed under tank treads, and—notably—a man already crushed under tank treads whom we watch get further crushed under further tank treads.