What is it about World War II that fascinates us? What is it that makes us savor the stories of that era and beg for them over and over again? Is it because we’ve come to romanticize the heroism of the “greatest generation”? Is it because it harkens to an era where our soldiers and government could be trusted to do the right thing? Perhaps it’s because the era represented humanity at its best and worst, a time when there was a clear cut distinction between the heroes and the villains.
That classical view of heroes and villains is thrown to the wayside in writer-director David Ayer’s savagely violent World War 2 drama Fury—a gritty, “you-are-there” anti-war picture that takes you on a tour through the hellish landscape of war-torn Europe during the waning days of the European theater. This is a land beset with blood, smoke and the smell of burnt and rotting flesh.
The survivors—soldiers and citizens alike —crawl the countryside like zombies, consumed by the horror, their humanity brutally ripped from them. This is a film dead-set on making a statement that when it came down to it, even the so called “good guys” weren’t above rape, murder and other atrocities. There are no winners in war and Ayer makes certain you remember that.
The date is April 1945, and the war in Europe is only a few weeks from its end. But for the Sherman tank “Fury” and its shell-shocked, battle-crushed inhabitants—Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt), hillbilly mongrel Grady “Coon-ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal), alcoholic Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña) and Bible-quoting Boyd Swan (Shia LeBeouf)—a few weeks might as well be an eternity.
To them, every bullet dodged is a lifetime earned. Survival is the only end-game, no matter the cost. Tasked with searching and destroying any renegade enemy tanks, the team patrols the desolate countryside determined to obliterate anything and everything that crosses their path. When the fifth man in their squad is killed early on, he’s replaced with Norman (Logan Lerman), a 17-year-old typist with no prior combat experience. Horrified by the barbarism of the others, Norman resolves to hold on to his humanity, even as he is humiliated and told to “man up” by the others. But eventually even he learns that morality holds no place in war. As Wardaddy tells him, “Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.”
Ayer, who is best known for writing and directing contemporary crime dramas like Training Day, End of Watch and Harsh Times, shoots Fury with the same intensity he brought to those thrillers. The battle sequences are gritty, engrossing and suspenseful. A set-piece in which a German tanker takes on three American tanks is a riveting sequence of combat cinema. From the dour cinematography to the painstakingly-realized production design, every aspect of Fury’s production is impeccably-crafted. I only wish Ayer paid as much detail to his characters and script.
Although the performers, particularly Brad Pitt and Shia LeBeouf, are memorable, Ayers dependence on stock characterizations leave the actors with little to add. What’s more, Ayers makes the fatal mistake of succumbing to Hollywood conventionality during the last act in which the film devolves into a jingoistic “murica the best” parable. It’s a decision that makes neither logical nor narrative sense. Was it studio interference that caused this bizarre resolution to the drama or was it a case of a filmmaker cornering himself? Still, Ayers distinct vision and resolve to present a less-than-flattering vision of American soldiers during World War 2, especially during the film’s first 100 minutes, make it worth your while.
Running time: 134 minutes
Companies: Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures
Rating: R for strong sequences of war violence, some grisly images, and language throughout