1. Where will it sit with critics?
Some will like it, some won’t. So far the reviews are upbeat –certainly strong enough to boost this elemental war movie with audiences when Sony opens it wide on October 17. But they’re not spectacular. “Fury” needs critics to elevate the material from studio actioner to something on the order of “Platoon” or “Saving Private Ryan.” Like those films, “Fury” is a character-based drama, not just a mindless foreign-targeted action picture. There’s plenty of colorful talking–much of it profane.
Sony didn’t play the fall festivals because it wasn’t ready and the opening date falls before AFI Fest. Sony started screening it as soon as they got the final print. The film could have used some positive playback from festivals, but the first task, as always, is to open well.
2. Is it an epic war spectacle or B actioner?
It’s somewhere in between, and that’s an issue. Writer-director Ayer is not in the Academy insiders club. He’s an iconoclast (low-budget “End of Watch” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña was a sleeper hit). The indie was financed by producer Bill Block’s QED (Ayer’s “Sabotage”), which raised cash from equity investors and advance minimum guarantees from territories around the world. That’s because the 105-page script (which had been gestating for a long time) was strong enough to appeal to a major movie star. Brad Pitt made it possible for the movie to get made at a higher budget level–close to $80 million. Sony won the bidding war to acquire the film.
The movie has scale and scope. Shot in and around England’s Pinewood Studios, “Fury” follows five men in a tank in April 1945 when the stakes are high and the war is almost–but not yet–over. The allies are fighting to the death inside Nazi Germany, trying to force Hitler to surrender. At the start of the movie in a brilliant shot envisioned by Ayer and shot by “End of Watch” cinematographer Roman Vasyanov, a horse and rider pick their way across a field of crops and then, as we recognize a Nazi soldier’s helmet and uniform, he surveys a charred battlefield strewn with the remains of American soldiers and smoked-out tanks. In a memorable moment, we meet war-weary sergeant Wardaddy (Pitt), whose men believe that they keep surviving battles like this because of his wily and relentless pursuit of Nazis.
The most satisfying scenes in the movie, the clearly executed tank battles, reminded me of the best sequences in HBO’s “Band of Brothers,” when Damian Lewis chased after Nazis with canny strategic smarts.
3. Is it better than “Inglourious Basterds”?
No. The shadow of that 2009 blockbuster and Oscar-winner hangs over “Fury” and Pitt, who played similarly obsessive Nazi hunter Lt. Aldo Raine in Quentin Tarantino’s more ironic and comedic war movie. That doesn’t mean that Ayer and Pitt can’t pursue their own more sincere and equally valid take on the material. But when comparisons are made,”Fury” may come up short. In a similar way, last year’s Oscar contender and global hit “Gravity” looms over Christopher Nolan’s upcoming space opera “Interstellar.” Will it top Alfonso Cuaron’s award-winner? That’s just the way it is.
4. Will actors like the movie?
Pitt ably carries “Fury.” And yet he is one of those movie stars whose acting looks so effortless that he doesn’t call attention to himself. After a “Fury” screening on the Sony lot attended by Sony’s Amy Pascal, Bernthal, Lerman, and producers Block (“W”) and John Lesher (“End of Watch,” “Birdman”), Ayer (who was raised in a military family) told me that Wardaddy is the father of this tank crew, while the only soldier he trusts, scripture-spouting Bible (a scene-stealing Shia LaBeouf) is the mother and heart of the unit, and animal-like Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal) is a raging Id. The two driver/gunners at the front of the tank, vet Latino Gordo (Michael Peña) and wet-behind-the-ears rookie Norman (Logan Lerman) round out the team. LaBeouf, seeking a redemptive comeback, and rising star Lerman, who gives audiences, especially women, an entry way into the film, are vying for supporting actor slots.
Pitt displays his range here–he’s driving, nurturing, punitive, loving, scolding, strong and stressed out (he loses it in private). In one of the great set-pieces in the film, after the Americans take over a town, he shepherds Norman to a quiet apartment inhabited by two German women who are terrified that they will be raped. The play-by-play in this oasis from guns and munitions is tricky and delicate. It’s a battle nonetheless.
5. Is it a ‘tweener?
Maybe “Fury” gets good reviews and plays well with audiences and lands year-end respect from the critics groups and guilds. Is it finally an elevated war movie like “The Hurt Locker” that goes all the way to multiple awards including Best Picture? Or a well-executed action drama like “Lone Survivor” that’s a popular hit but doesn’t register with the Academy at all? That’s the question.