War is hell, a tried and true axiom that gets personified to the nth degree in David Ayer’s World War II epic, Fury, about a tank crew who utter a book full of cliches and live out religious allegories while quoting the Gospel. Ayer, who wrote Training Day and directed such smash-mouth dramas as Harsh Times and End of Watch, has his nose deep in male bravado and testosterone bondsmanship. The scribe-turned-helmsman could probably learn a thing or two from Paul Schrader, who penned Taxi Driver but had mixed success transitioning to the director’s seat with the likes of American Gigolo, Cat People and Light Sleeper. Schrader however, was interested in character-driven stories, whereas Ayer seeks to drop vestiges of square-jawed manliness in chaotic hell often punctuated by hyper violence. Sam Peckinpah had it covered from both sides, and the fact that he did, and that many have attempted to emulate his style and resonance, and failed, only strengthens the testimony of his unbridled cinematic genius.
Right from the get-go, Ayer lets us know that this isn’t the clean, moral war captured on black and white back in the ’40s and ’50s, but something darker and more complex. Coming across a bomb-blasted field of American tank carcasses, an SS officer on a white horse checks the carnage to make sure there are no survivors. For something to be alive doesn’t seem possible, but springing from atop one steel beast is Brad Pitt, who quickly puts a knife blade through the officer’s occipital brow and then unsaddles the horse and allows it to go free—a metaphor for the freeing of white Europe by the grubby Americans?
Pitt’s “Wardaddy” (real name Don) is the most kempt of an unseemly lot that includes a Mexican named Gordo (Michael Pena) who’s not allowed to speak Spanish, an uncouth backwoods hillbilly (Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal) referred to as “Coon-Ass” Grady and Shia LaBeouf, last seen naked and huffing away in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac series, as Boyd “Bible” Swan, second in command. They’re a battle-loving bunch who kill Germans with all the relish of the Jewish detachment in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, but this ain’t no revisionist black comedy—Fury is dead straight and since it’s 1945 and post D-Day, you can almost see Ayer angling the movie to be the back-half bookend to Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.
Amid the dreary bleakness, much relative good shines on the crew of the Sherman, affectionately branded the same name as the film’s title. They survive many encounters, but though no bullet can take you in a tank, there are many other ways to die—namely head-to-head with the superior German Tiger, which is near impervious to the Sherman’s cannon. Since this is late in the campaign, the men of the Fury are working behind enemy lines and on German soil. Most of what they have to do is save fellow troops trapped in pockets, or take a small town. Besides an enthralling chicken-fight with a Tiger, Fury’s best action comes when the boys are outside the metal wrapper they call home. What really brings the potent potpourri of personalities to a head is a boyish, war-green private named Norman (Logan Lerman the wide-eyed young actor best known for playing the titular hero of Percy Jackson), new to the crew, who becomes beguiled by a young fräulein (that Gordo and Grady also want a go at). Sex and war blended together make for some bending ethics, but here, something that should be chilling or at least edgily disturbing, is rendered banal and inert like a bunch of insipid frat boys at a “Girls Gone Wild“ festival—a plumbing of morality that Brian de Palma tapped so piquantly in the unheralded war contemplation, Casualties of War.
Much of Fury hangs on Pitt, and he carries the load dutifully, though Wardaddy’s dicy blend of blood-lusting avenger and reflective soul never fully marry, which is true of much of Ayer’s vision; it never quite registers the true organic essence of men in war the way “alternative” WW II gems like The Big Red One and Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron do. No matter, Ayer has clocked in a gorgeous-looking effort full of ambition and drive, but overall, Fury becomes overwhelmed by a rudderless weave. It’s a film searching for soul and purpose, which ultimately comes in the crucible of fire when the Fury five make a 300 stand against a sizable SS unit.
“Ideals are peaceful. History is violent,” Wardaddy says. And words and stabs at profundity are easy, but getting at the character and the heart—that’s where the diesel meets the diesel meets the dirt.
Director: David Ayer
Writer: David Ayer
Starring: Brad Pitt, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, Shia LeBeouf, Logan Lerman
Release Date: Oct.17, 2014
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge, MA. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in The Boston Phoenix, Paste Magazine, The Rumpus, Thieves Jargon, Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere. You can follow him on Twitter