“Fury” is set April 1945, as the Allies finish off Nazi Germany, but the movie’s period matters less than its mood, which it thrusts forward with the mechanical intensity of the tanks at the story’s center. Writer-director David Ayer’s brash, assaultive Brad Pitt drama manages some evocative imagery and achieves visceral impact by enacting a hellacious atmosphere that never lets up — but Ayer takes the mission too literally, and winds up literally lost in the fog of war.
The failings of “Fury” come early on, when an opening shot that finds a Nazi soldier riding a white horse through the smoldering wreckage of American tanks. Out of the shadows jumps knife-wielding sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Pitt). The scene, like many others following it, contains a grotesque, hellacious quality, yet still feels empty. It’s a stark, beautifully lit illustration that war is hell. But what else is new?
Despite its 134-minute running time, “Fury” never addresses that question. Returning to his tank — which bears the movie’s title on its cannon — Wardaddy’s take-no-prisoners approach quickly comes to light: The war may be nearing completion, but he remains in the thick of it. As the tank barrels forward, he hovers with his soldiers, who include Boyd “Bible” Swan (a mustachioed Shia LaBeouf), Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña), Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal), and Sergeant Miles (Scott Eastwood). At a nearby base, Wardaddy is tasked with toughening up his new driver, the scrawny Norman “Cobb” Ellison (Logan Lerman). At first cruelly forcing the young recruit to inflict violence on Nazi prisoners, Wardaddy later takes pity on the lightweight.
The movie’s expressionistic qualities extend to its bluntly drawn characters: Wardaddy’s ambiguous stature, as both imperialistic monster of combat and principled warrior, sets the stage for newbie Ellison to learn a heavy-handed lesson in moral equivalency as he experiences death firsthand. The movie’s trajectory is mapped out as Ellison is swept up in a dust-caked world of cruel masculinity and rampant bloodshed. “Fury” scores points for attempting to depict WWII in strikingly minimalist terms, but Ayer struggles to deepen those intentions.
Despite Pitt’s loud and domineering performance, the real star of “Fury” is cinematographer Roman Vasyonov. His grey-tinted visuals create a hyperreal quality to the narrative, which largely unfolds on expansive landscapes strewn with wreckage. The impressionistic style is particularly effective during the spectacular finale, a showdown that pits the tank against hundreds of Nazi assailants as the gold-tinted shadows take the plot into the realm of abstraction.
But the extraordinary visuals never develop a substantial takeaway, and neither do the characters: During a prolonged dinner-table sequence that finds Pitt and Lerman spending a few gentler moments with surviving German women in a bombed-out town, Ayer goes great lengths to demonstrate the challenge of finding solace in the midst of a terribly ugly situation. The sequence holds potential, but goes on far too long, as if begging to be taken seriously. And that’s the problem with “Fury” as a whole: Every thematic possibility is addressed in the broadest strokes.
Of course, “Fury” doesn’t aim for realism, and Ayer has never been a filmmaker particularly interested in naturalism. His movies use the extremes of action and conversation to convey big ideas with fast, pugnacious energy. As with his found-footage police drama “End of Watch” and the DEA thriller “Sabotage,” the director makes a considerable attempt to barrel inside the ecosystem of a dirty, reckless profession. But his plodding, dim-witted script never rises to the level of his intentions. Instead, it returns to obvious dialogue meant to underscore the warmongering sensibilities in play. “This is an American tank,” Wardaddy barks when one of his compatriots uses Spanish. “We talk American!” So does the movie, which uses its crass, thundering exterior as an excuse for the absence of pretty much anything else.
Though ostensibly an ensemble piece, “Fury” offers little in the way of memorable performances. LaBeouf’s bland performance is overshadowed by his recent public spectacles, while Peña and Bernthal play thin stereotypes. Lerman is serviceable as the sole sympathetic figure, though his whiny presence offers nothing new. These are archetypal characters may serve its stripped-down aesthetic, but their connotations are symbolically weak.
In principle, the movie has a kinship with Quentin Tarantino’s similarly embellished WWII crowdpleaser “Inglourious Basterds,” which also features Pitt as a combative sergeant. Once again, the main soldiers reporting to the character are Jewish. But while “Fury” shows its men fueled by rage, it trades the irony of Tarantino’s movie for triviality. “Done much killin’?” Wardaddy asks his latest disciple. “You will!” Later, he inexplicably becomes a guru-like instructor in a lesson of moral equivalency, declaring that “ideas are peaceful. History is violent.” It’s like Ayer is begging us to care.
He achieves greater impact in the pure claustrophobia of scenes set inside the tank, which becomes a moving metaphor for the sense of existential confinement. But anyone familiar with the 2009 Israeli film “Lebanon,’ which exclusively takes place inside an Israeli tank, will know that this moving metaphor only works when its inhabits infuse it with life. “Fury” never evolves beyond its conceptual ambition.
The sights of burning bodies and tanks crunching soldiers in foxholes can’t help but manage some horrific specificity. But with time, the repeated flashes of ugliness grow redundant. Intended to shock us, “Fury” has a deadening effect, until it becomes a victim of the same brutality it was designed to indict.
“Fury” opens nationwide on October 17.
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