April, 1945. As the Allies make their final push in the European Theatre, a battle-hardened army sergeant named Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) commands a Sherman tank and her five-man crew on a deadly mission behind enemy lines. Outnumbered and outgunned, and with a rookie soldier thrust into their platoon, Wardaddy and his men face overwhelming odds in their heroic attempts to strike at the heart of Nazi Germany.
World War II used to be Hollywood's favorite go-to conflict, but since the 1990s and America's interminable entanglements in such desolate locales as Iraq and Afghanistan, war movies have shifted their focus from the nostalgic romanticism of 1940s Europe to these grittier and more topical battlegrounds, which also better lend themselves to the kind of raw, brash, cutting edge filmmaking contemporary directors and audiences favor. Though 'Saving Private Ryan' added a dose of brutal realism to the old-fashioned World War II formula, shocking viewers with graphic depictions of violence and gore, few other films have followed suit...until 'Fury,' writer-director David Ayer's full-throttle chronicle of an Allied tank, its motley crew, and their dangerous missions deep in the bowels of Nazi Germany during the waning days of the war. Make no mistake, 'Fury' is not your father's - or your grandfather's - World War II movie; its bold, in-your-face style, expletive-laden dialogue, prevailing cynicism, and rampant brutality seek to brush the mothballs off this frozen-in-time war and re-christen it with a hipper vibe. The film also sets out to prove that despite its rarefied reputation, World War II was just as dirty, repugnant, and wacked out as any other war in history.
If its success were to be gauged only on the above criteria, 'Fury' would score high marks, but the elements it largely lacks - heart, soul, meaning - outweigh the surface truths it so devastatingly depicts. That clichéd phrase "war is hell" feels like it's branded on every frame of the movie, but Ayer, best known for penning Denzel Washington's Oscar-winning vehicle 'Training Day,' doesn't need to drum such an elementary idea into our heads. Any intelligent viewer knows the sugar-coated view of World War II many of the propaganda movies of the '40s, '50s, '60s, and even the '70s spoon-fed us didn't accurately reflect what transpired in the fields and woods of Europe, yet it seems Ayer feels compelled to destroy that stereotype. So what we get is a modern war movie in a period setting, and like oil and water, the two don't really mix.
'Fury' is filled with unsettling images meant to shock us, and that's fine if they serve a larger purpose. But as the film lumbers along, much like the tank as it crawls across the barren German terrain, we don't learn much about the characters, except that battle fatigue has stressed them to the breaking point. Like combat robots, the soldiers carry out their orders, stoically moving from one mission to the next, doing their distasteful duty, embracing the kill-or-be-killed mentality, living from day to day, numbing themselves to the pain and suffering of others, and considering every breath a gift. Survival is their only goal. As the men sarcastically quip, it's the best job they ever had. And maybe that's all 'Fury' is...a brutal look at a shitty job that either kills or shatters the lives of America's youth. But to fully engage its audience, to make us really sit up and take notice, the film needs more of an emotional hook. For just as the soldiers become numb to all the violence, so do we. And once that happens, then the movie just becomes a bore, an empty action flick that pretends to be something bigger and more meaningful.
There isn't much plot to 'Fury,' which takes place over the course of a few tense days in April of 1945. After invading Germany, the Allies methodically seek to take control of the country and destroy the last vestiges of the Nazi regime. The metal fortresses that roam the countryside are effective killing machines, and a crusty sergeant named Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt) runs a tight ship on the one called Fury. His team includes an assortment of rough, rollicking, jaded soldiers - the religious Boyd "Bible" Swan (Shia LaBeouf), rotund Trini "Gordo" Garcia (Michael Peña), and obnoxious Grady "Coon-Ass" Travis (Jon Bernthal) - but the replacement for his recently killed assistant driver is is about as green as they come. Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) is a clerk-typist who's only been in the army for eight weeks, has no tank experience, and has never seen any combat. Wracked with nerves and mercilessly hazed by his cohorts, Norman struggles to get a grip. Wardaddy takes him under his wing, offering paternal guidance, and as the days go by and he experiences baptism by fire both on and off the battlefield, Norman begins to settle in, understand and participate in the psychedelic culture in which he's been immersed, and come of age. But the missions only get tougher, and with each passing hour the risk increases and death marches ever closer.
Technically impressive, muscular, and macho, 'Fury' bulldozes its way across the screen, often resembling a submarine flick as it depicts the edgy interpersonal dynamics in the tank's stuffy, claustrophobic confines. The missions are tense and well staged, but other than Norman's maturation and hardening, there's no unifying thread tying them together and no underlying message that hits home. Sure, we like most of the characters well enough - we admire their fortitude and forgive their frailties - and if they die it's a shame, but to make us really care about them Ayer has to give us something more, and he seems loath to do so. (An examination of the deleted scenes, reviewed below, makes it clear Ayer jettisoned some of his best and most sensitive material, maybe because he felt it turned his hard-ass heroes into sissies.) He emphasizes realism in the battle sequences - although too many special effects taint them - but the manner in which the soldiers conduct themselves and the renegade fashion in which they fight more strongly resemble tactics and attitudes in modern warfare than those employed during World War II. And while I'm sure the horror of the Second World War exceeds any nightmare I can fathom in my imagination, the sadistic acts depicted in 'Fury' seem out of place and drawn from our country's experiences in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan rather than the historical record of the Allies fight against the Nazis.
At 50, Pitt is too old - by a long shot - for his role as a tank sergeant, yet he still crafts a believable, square-jawed performance, even if some of the acts he's called upon to perform don't ring true. LaBeouf, however, files a horribly self-conscious portrayal. Overly mannered and unintelligible half the time, he becomes a distracting caricature and drags the movie down. Peña and Bernthal assert themselves well, but it's Lerman, best known for his role in 'The Perks of Being a Wallflower,' who really shines. 'Fury' hangs on his slight shoulders and he rises to the challenge, grabbing the reins of a pivotal part and running with it. He holds his own well with Pitt and the rest of the veteran cast, and his earnest, unaffected work anchors the film.
But without a compelling story, there's only so much Lerman can do. 'Fury' has firepower to burn (Ayer executes the action with the coldness and precision of a military maneuver), but when the guns cool down the film struggles to find its footing. Though some affecting moments are sprinkled throughout, they rarely achieve the desired level of devastation and impact. Most frustrating of all is the knowledge that 'Fury' could have been so much better. The makings of a memorable movie are there (just watch the deleted scenes), but Ayer squanders the ingredients, and much like the missions depicted on screen, 'Fury' ultimately becomes an interminable exercise in futility.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Fury' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve. A leaflet containing a code to access the Digital HD Ultraviolet copy is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, a promo for Ultraviolet, followed by previews of 'The Equalizer,' 'Whiplash,' 'Foxcatcher,' the upcoming Playstation Network series 'Powers,' and 'Predestination' precede the static menu with music.
Another of Sony's "mastered in 4k" titles, 'Fury' looks spectacular on Blu-ray, sporting a crisp, vibrant picture, superior contrast, and exceptional levels of detail. Not a hint of grain, even in the dark recesses of the tank, is visible, and no specks, marks, or other bits of debris sully the pristine source material. A muted color palette accentuates the bleak milieu of the characters, but during sunny sequences, a warm glow bathes the image, heightening textures and showcasing the lush greenery of the English countryside, which doubled for Germany during filming. Shadow delineation is quite good, with minimal amounts of crush occurring only in the darkest scenes, and background elements are always easy to discern. Black levels are rich and deep, fleshtones are accurate, and razor sharp close-ups showcase the soldiers' careworn, banged up, and grimy faces to perfection. No banding, noise, or pixelation rear their ugly heads, and no digital enhancements, such as edge sharpening or DNR, seem to have been applied. Visually, Sony knocks this one out of the park, providing a supremely immersive, captivating viewing experience.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is highly immersive as well. Though now and then I felt the mix wasn't quite as bold, brash, and powerful as I would have liked, it certainly puts you in the thick of the action and gives all five speakers a workout. A predominance of distinct surround activity provides a heightened sense of realism, and exceptional stereo separation across the front channels adds an extra element of dimensionality that enhances our involvement in the on-screen drama. A wide dynamic scale nicely manages all the explosions and gunfire without any hints of distortion, and though bass frequencies are appropriately weighty, I craved a few more room-shaking rumbles during the combat scenes. Dialogue is sometimes difficult to comprehend due to the loud humming of the tank engine, excessive background activity, and regional accents of some of the actors (many of LaBeouf's lines are unintelligible), but most of the exchanges are clear enough. The music score of Steven Price ('Gravity') envelops with ease, thanks to superior fidelity and a lovely depth of tone, and all the artillery effects and subtle atmospherics are crisply rendered. Though it just misses a reference quality rating, the audio track earns high marks and will certainly please the most discriminating ears.
Most of the disc supplements are Blu-ray exclusives (see below). The only extra shared between the high-def and DVD editions of the film is the 11-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, "Blood Brothers," which includes interviews with director-writer David Ayer, Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, and other members of the cast and crew. Ayer compares the atmosphere inside a tank to that of a family under incredible stress, and the actors describe their preparatory boot camp experiences with Navy SEAL trainers and how they forged a tight bond during shooting. Pitt says Ayer is "ferocious about authenticity," and arranged for the cast to meet with surviving World War II tank veterans to gain their perspective. A few of those veterans share their impressions in this slick, somewhat sentimental featurette. The interview clips with LaBeouf are slightly awkward, as the actor seems to intentionally look askance of the camera and adopt a sullen attitude.
With apologies to 'Macbeth,' 'Fury' contains a lot of sound and appropriate fury, but unfortunately this bombastic yet surprisingly dreary World War II film signifies very little...outside of the obvious "war is hell" theme. With all of the angst, resentment, fear, dread, and rough-and-tumble male bonding on display, one would expect a more penetrating and emotionally searing motion picture, yet David Ayer's chronicle of a tank crew's adventures behind enemy lines in Nazi Germany favors action over character, and the result is a loud, crude, violent, numbing movie that lacks the one component that could have made it great - heart. Though the film is disappointing, Sony's Blu-ray presentation is anything but, with a fantastic video transfer, top-quality audio, and a substantive collection of supplements adding much-needed luster to this release. War movie fans may appreciate 'Fury' more than I did, but it pales when compared to 'Saving Private Ryan' and other genre classics, so unless you're a WWII junkie, a rental or stream will certainly suffice.