The films of David Ayer ("Training Day," "End Of Watch") don’t flinch in their portrayal of masculine behaviour pushed to the edge, so it’s no surprise that the opening minutes of his World War II film "Fury" see a Nazi soldier get stabbed in face. Never one for nuance, Ayer’s latest enters the canon of the WWII film genre without any ambitions toward philosophical inquiry. Instead, he presents hardened men, in an even more hardened situation, surviving on brotherhood, courage and a little luck. It’s not the most complex WWII movie you’ll see, but there’s no denying the blunt intensity of "Fury," and even if it doesn’t sustain, Ayer commits to staring straight into hellish eye of war and bringing audiences along to witness every gruesome detail.
As the prologue text informs viewers, it’s April 1945, and while the war is nearly over, and though an Allied victory seems assured, the Nazis are fighting back with "fanatical resistance." One man who is glad to battle the enemy head on is Don Collier, aka Wardaddy (Brad Pitt), the leader of the Fury, an M4 Sherman tank crew. "I started this war fighting Nazis in Africa, then I followed them Belgium, to France, and now Germany," he says, practically listing his military history like a CV. He hates Nazis to such a degree (the medals of officers he and his crew have killed decorate the inside of the tank) you almost expect him to turn into Lt. Aldo Raine from "Inglourious Basterds" and start asking for scalps. That passionate hatred is only matched by the devotion to his crew, whom he vows to keep alive against impossible odds. But despite those best efforts, Wardaddy lost his assistant driver in a recent battle, and he’s about to get another unwelcome surprise.
Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) is thrust into Wardaddy’s team as their new assistant driver, and both parties have their concerns. For gunner Boyd Swan (Shia LaBeouf), driver Trini Garcia (Michael Pena) and loader Grady Travis (Jon Bernthal), Norman is a not only a stranger in their their tightly knit midst, he’s someone they barely know that they’ll have to entrust with their very lives. But Norman isn’t much happier about the situation. He tries to explain that he’s a mere Army clerk, "trained to type sixty words per minute," who found himself suddenly yanked from an office and shipped off to a battlefield. He doesn’t know the first thing about driving a tank, let alone shooting a gun, and he’d rather be anywhere else than rolling into battle with this grimy, unfriendly band of brothers. But orders must be followed, and soon Norman is learning about life on the front lines on the fly, while Wardaddy and the others try to whip their new teammate into shape.
Perhaps the wisest choice made by Ayer is in his script for "Fury," which emphasizes the journey rather than the destination. Wardaddy is given orders to help take some German towns and cut off of advancing Nazi soldiers to let an Allied supplied train through (or something). It’s all vaguely defined, and merely exists to allow Fury to move from place to place, and raise the stakes as they go behind enemy lines. Indeed, the action sequences are where Ayer is most invested, with the tank battles appropriately compelling, and the gunfire given almost "Star Wars"-like colored laser effects—which isn’t as cheesy or terrible as that sounds—to highlight the velocity and volume of ammunition both sides faced. It’s all staged effectively, with real impact, and were this two-hour-plus film 40-minutes shorter, acting as a lean and mean action flick against the backdrop of the war, Ayer may have had something close to B-movie perfection. But his desire to strive for deeper meaning outweigh his ability in "Fury."
Ayer’s main difficulty is in drawing these characters, who all have interesting textures that are left frustratingly under-utilized. Pitt in particular is strong in his turn as Wardaddy, delivering Ayer’s clichéd, stoic/heroic dialogue with a restraint in his facial features and distance in his eyes that betrays someone who is living with horrors he’ll never forget. When Wardaddy eyeballs Norman the first few times, it’s with an annoyance at this green soldier, coupled with an unspoken fear at having another young life under his command and in his hands. While all of this is expertly established in the first act, a wobbly second act (which exists merely for an unnecessary, and laughably extended sequence of Shirtless Brad Pitt showing off his ripped bod), and a final act that leans more heavily on action than anything else, diminish the opportunity to explore those character elements further. In most of the other cases, the actors are given less to work with than Pitt, and are left to elevate the material off the page themselves. Lerman in particular is terrific as the terrified newbie who has gone from typing memos to pulling the trigger, and knowing that every decision to do so (or not to) can cost someone their lives. The actor finds that right note that allows his character to be vulnerable but not cowardly, which is a key distinction. LaBeouf is also very strong, even if the fact that his character is a devout Christian is so poorly presented it almost comes as a surprise later in the picture, and he’s great as the team’s man of faith and Wardaddy’s closest buddy (though, again, there’s not much else given to provide context for that relationship).
In the right hands, this holding back of explicit character detail can work, but it takes a savvy actor and an observant director to pull it off (see Jake Gyllenhaal in Denis Villeneuve‘s "Prisoners" as a recent example, where even how his character’s wardrobe is worn speaks volumes about his backstory). Ayer’s lack of confidence in knowing which way to go is clearly felt. He has never been the most emotional of filmmakers, so it’s not an entire surprise that repetitive discussions by the crew of Fury about whether or not God is watching over them are clunky and perfunctory. For the most part, Wardaddy, Norman, Boyd, Trini and Grady are left filling pre-determined, archetypal slots (the hero, the newbie, the religious one, the instigator, and…Michael Pena, who is disappointingly underwritten), and so, when Ayer moves for a cathartic (and action packed ) finale, it doesn’t resonate the way it should, because for the all time spent with these men, you don’t feel you really know them. There are also strained attempts to comment on young boys in decorated uniforms sending orders down the chain to older men, and a thread about compassion from the enemy and from soldiers united in not wanting to be part of war around them, that are left drifting in the wind.
Meanwhile, "Gravity" composer Steven Price also does the movie no favors. His Oscar-winning score for Alfonso Cuaron‘s groundbreaking sci-fi film was just on the right side of brash, insistent and propulsive, because in many ways it was designed to keep the tension ratcheted as the movie went from one thrill to another. But in "Fury," Price’s work is simply over-the-top and out of place, overselling moments that need a softer touch, or inviting a tone that sometimes seems incongruous. Ranging between medieval and operatic, Price’s music is often at odds with the much grittier picture it’s backing.
"Ideals are peaceful, history is violent," Wardaddy says in one of a handful of fortune cookie style statements he shares throughout the movie. And that could very well be Ayer’s mantra for making "Fury." Certainly, the film makes a heckuva case for the latter, and Ayer is almost gleeful about the body parts and blood he puts on display. But it’s too bad he doesn’t realize that ideals and gunplay aren’t mutually exclusive, and Ayer gives up by the film’s end for thematic resonance, content with his characters to be woo-hoo-ing as Nazis get cut down. What Wardaddy says about the war could apply directly to the movie as well: "Before it ends, a whole lot more people gotta die." [C+]