Dir: David Ayer
Brad Pitt returns to WWII-era Europe to finish the job he started in Inglourious Basterds and kill off the last of the Nazis in David Ayer’s tank pic Fury. Still gung-ho about obliging Nazi’s death wishes yet far more world weary, Pitt finds himself in a decidedly darker affair than Tarantino’s tale as Fury is mired in mud and inventively, revoltingly violent. Ayer leaves behind his usual setting of Los Angeles (Training Day, Harsh Times, End of Watch) to write and direct this grim tale of sacrifice and lost humanity set amidst tank-based warfare in the waning days of WWII.
It’s April 1945 and despite inferior technology the Americans have the dwindling Nazi army on the run in their homeland. Of course, the last of the Nazis are dug in deep as ticks and it’ll take no small effort to burrow them out. Pitt plays Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier, stoic leader of the resilient five-man crew of the titular Sherman tank. As the movie opens on an otherworldly scene of surreal violence (reminiscent of the artfulness of Spielberg’s War Horse finale), we’re introduced to Wardaddy’s crew. There’s rowdy redneck ‘Coon-Ass’ Travis (The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal), Latino comic relief ‘Gordo’ Garcia (frequent Ayer collaborator Michael Pena), religious yet filthy human ‘Bible’ Swan (Holes star and method actor Shia LaBeouf), and a fifth unnamed member who’s now a pile blood and viscera after Fury’s last military engagement. Fresh-faced Norman Ellison (The Perks of Being a Wallflower’s Logan Lerman) is assigned as the replacement driver – despite having only been in the military 8 weeks – and given the uphill battle of having to earn both his battle-hardened comrades’ respect and a cool nickname to match.
From the caked-on grit that the characters rarely bother to clean off their faces to the thick mud that tanks treads churn up, Fury enjoys wallowing in the muck that comes with prolonged warfare. The violence is equally grim and still manages to be novel and disturbing despite numerous war films over the years. Bullets fly by with wanton abandon and limbs are chewed and torn apart by zinging artillery; a character lets his guard down for one moment and is hit by an errant guerilla attack with horrific consequences. At one point the rookie Ellison is advised to “make his bullets count” so he can “harvest the most meat”. There’s a cold arithmetic at play here, as the remaining men, tanks and bullets of the war are carefully tallied and then slung at entrenched enemies in never-ending battles of attrition. Hard months and years manifest as bone-tiredness and dead eyes in the men who’ve been fighting, alleviated only by the audience surrogate of Ellison who’s thrown into this maelstrom of gore.
Lerman does a good job at selling his character’s descent into Hades, guided by the familiar hand and scarred face of Pitt. The supporting cast is strong and has fun with the dialogue, but is at-times cartoonish (with Bernthal’s ‘Coon-Ass’ being the worst offender). Ayers injects some of his signature manly banter into the downtime scenes, which sometimes comes off as anachronistic (did people really say ‘fuck’ that often in 1945?) but also adds some much-needed levity. Character motivations remain muddled, beyond the fact that these were once-good men worn downs to nubs by the violence and inhumanity they’ve been forced to perpetrate.
The movie sings when in battle, with a late-film matchup between American Shermans and a superior and deadly German Tiger standing out as viscerally thrilling. The male bonding scenes and limp middle section are less engaging, with a long dinner scene varying wildly in tone and doing a good job of making me hate most of the characters. We’re meant to truly empathize with the bonds these men have established, but the “big speech” (which is actually quite truncated) and inevitable final showdown ring somewhat hollow and don’t bring the emotional payoff the filmmakers intended.
Regardless, the fireworks on display are often wondrous to look at. Tracers soar through the night and smoke obscures the battlefield to create a true hellscape that these men must battle their way through. While the characters can devolve into caricature and the surroundings are almost too self-consciously grimy, there’s still some novel ideas at play if you can look past the ugliness. While Ayers makes good use of the expanded budget given here, more tank-to-tank battles would have been greatly appreciated as the one that did make it to the screen is definitely the highlight. It won’t knock off any of the greats (like Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, or Patton) from the list of the best WWII movies, but the uneven Fury will certainly occupy a comfortable place around the middle of that list, bolstered as it is with a familiar Brad Pitt performance and the rarely seen novelty of tank-based warfare. There’s even some religious iconography to support the maxim that War Is Hell, which Fury certainly goes to great lengths to show in gruesome detail.