With the possible exception of a few John Wayne movies, ALL war movie are anti-war movies. Writer/director David Ayers’ new World War II movie , “Fury,” is a gut-wrenching drama about the dehumanizing effect war ultimately has on the warrior.
“Fury” takes place in the spring of 1945, getting towards the end of World War II, as Allied troops are finally invading Germany itself. Brad Pitt is both heart-breaking and appalling as Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier, a battle-hardened tank commander who’s been fighting for three years. Saddled with Norman (Logan Lerman), a new replacement whose only training was to be a clerk/typist, Collier quickly shows himself to be a complex character, hard-nosed, impatient, gruff and pragmatic, yet deeply concerned with the welfare of his men.
He’s also a war criminal. “Fury” contains several scenes in which American GI’s mistreat and even shoot unarmed prisoners. After Norman’s hesitation to open fire on armed, but young, German troops in the field, “Wardaddy” physically forces him to shoot a kneeling prisoner in the back. In 1998, Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award-winning “Saving Private Ryan” took some heat from World War II veterans’ organizations for also depicting American soldiers shooting German soldiers who were trying to surrender. That was pre-9/11 and it will be interesting, and maybe instructive, to see if the same sensibilities surface.
All of Collier’s crew have war names, underscoring the fact that they are different people at war than at home. Shia LaBoeuf’s Boyd Swan, a stonecold killer despite his avowed, devout Christian faith, is called “Bible.” Michael Peña’s Trini Garcia, a tank driver turning to alcohol to relieve unrelenting stress, is “Gordo.” Jon Bernthal’s hard-edged, child of the Depression Grady Travis is “Coon Ass.” Collier’s nickname, “Wardaddy, is no accident. His crew is his family. He calls his tank, which has its nickname, “Fury,” painted on its gun barrel, home, and it becomes apparent that he isn’t kidding. Collier knows the war is ending, although many more people will die before it’s all over, and it’s pretty clear he knows on some level there won’t be any place for him in peacetime. He’s determined to accomplish his mission, but this is underscored by an unnerving, self-destructive sub-agenda.
Pitt gives yet another in a string of smart, mature performances that have marked his career in middle age. The supporting performances are colorful and uniformly excellent, but LaBoeuf’s is revelatory. “Bible” is one of the most richly realized, complex characters in recent memory and LaBoeuf’s multi-layered, nuanced performance that may well rear its head during awards season. Logan Lerman may have found a way out of Percy Jackson Hell.
“Fury” invites comparisons to Sam Peckinpah’s classic western, “The Wild Bunch,” both in its unflinching depiction of obscene violence and in being a story about men of violence whose world is ending. It’s hard to know if Ayers, who was born the year before “The Wild Bunch” was released, was consciously influenced by Peckinpah. His visual technique could scarcely be more different. Where Peckinpah caught the attention of critics with his almost balletic slow motion shots of twisted bodies spurting Max Factor stage blood, Ayers favors sudden mayhem that comes out of nowhere and incredibly graphic dismemberment that happens so fast you barely glimpse it.
Nonetheless, “Fury” is done quite differently than Ayers’ last movie, the semi-mockumentary cop drama “End of Watch,” that was meant to look like video. “Fury” was shot on film, with Panavision cameras little different from the ones Peckinpah used. The photography, by “End of Watch” DP Roman Vasyanov, is a masterpiece of muddy, misty mood. The tank interiors are oily, greasy, sweaty and claustrophobic. The extensive use of tracer rounds during the movie’s frequent firefights give an occasionally startling “Star Wars” vibe, but look lethal. Ayers finds unexpected moments of horror between the action sequences, including a cringe-worthy shot of a flattened body being run over by passing tanks.
As a writer, Ayers falls into the trap laid by “Saving Private Ryan,” with a couple of sequences of overlong, expository backstory dialogue that disrupt the flow of an otherwise taut drama. In other sequences, he extracts surprise, though seldom pleasant. A morally ambiguous interlude with a couple of civilian German women is likely to be offensive to women audience members, though when disaster strikes it isn’t what was probably expected.
“Fury” puts its audience through the wringer emotionally. No good deed is left unpunished. Decency is followed by indecency, and heroism is the by-product of insanity. That war is hell is not a new theme, but few movies have demonstrated quite as vividly as this the terrible price of making men good at it.