There aren’t a whole lot of tank movies, not nearly as many as there are submarine movies. It’s a similar subset of a war movie, although tanks are far more maneuverable and require a smaller crew. Fury is an awesome, fast paced WWII adventure that never lets up, except for that one section where it slows down on purpose. Viscerally, it works completely, but intellectually it takes some short cuts to achieve that visceral momentum.
A Sherman tank crew makes its way through Germany in 1945. Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) is assigned to the Fury crew. Since he came from a non combat position, he is thrust into the thick of battle and forced to become a soldier quickly. Collier (Brad Pitt) commands the tank and Swan (Shia LaBeouf), Garcia (Michael Pena) and Travis (John Bernthal) seem battle hardened already. The trailers make it look like the whole movie is one standoff, but that is only the third act. The Fury goes all over Germany it seems, fighting many battles and building to that last stand.
So the action is incredible, but it gave me a little pause. We should absolutely show the graphic reality of battle, and today we have the means to show gruesome deaths via makeup or CGI. It just feels like the graphic deaths in Fury are so clever, it’s fetishizing them. How can the violence be bigger than we’ve seen before? How can this head be blown off in more directions than even Glory or Saving Private Ryan? At a certain point, you do have to be creative as a storyteller. Otherwise you’re just being derivative, but I felt the wheels turning to set up these elaborate deaths.
Maybe it’s just that we see two shots of a severed face on the floor of the tank instead of just one shot of it. Or maybe it seems like a tank was maneuvered into position more for the gunner to be blown away than for actual military strategy. Look, I’m lucky I only have to analyze fake war. Some people had to see this happen before their eyes and there was no director orchestrating it. But Fury had a director orchestrating it and I’m trying to make sense of it.
Of course, much of the violence is poignant. Norman is ordered to keep shooting at dead bodies. This actually makes perfect sense. You can’t risk an enemy combatant surviving and following you from behind. What a soldier set on fire in a tank chooses to do is frightening and poignant too. What’s really incredible is just how Fury propels itself through the war.
Tank strategy is a bit like submarine strategy in that they are these big, lumbering machines that have to be put into position, and take a while to redirect. There are a few more options for visual battles with tanks. A tank turning on the ground is easier to see than a tube in the middle of the ocean. Writer/director David Ayer makes an interesting choice to color the machine gun fire. Enemy fire glows red while ally fire is green. It kind of looks like Star Wars, but a veteran could better tell me if gunfire really does look that way. I’d believe them. [UPDATE: In fact, I have been informed that these are tracer ammunition colored so soldiers could track their firing without aiming. Can’t recall seeing that in a movie before and we the viewer certainly can trace the gunshots that way.]
That third act does seem like a pointless display of bravado. The absurdity of war is always a valuable message, but Collier is basically a kamikaze at that point. And that middle section goes on a bit too long for something fairly obvious. The crew settle in with a German household. Norman has a beautiful moment with a German girl that turns ugly when Travis and Garcia return. The film surely needed to breathe a little bit, but the longer this sequence goes on it only reminds you that the film is breathing. Perhaps it’s trying to pull an Inglourious Basterds, but I thought Tarantino overused that trick too.
Really, Fury is an awesome thrill ride. You feel like you can trace the tank’s trajectory through WWII, and the reality that turns Norman into another killer like his tankmates. I could feel the hand of the creator orchestrating these events, but it’s not a bad orchestration. Just maybe not as subtle as it could have been.