Smoke wafts across the battlefield, curling over the countless dead soldiers and smoldering wreckage of the machines of war. Sergeant Don Collier (Brad Pitt) sheathes the knife he used moments before to core out the neck of a Nazi soldier like an apple, toppling the man from a regal white stallion. Collier urges the horse to leave before climbing back into his battered Sherman tank. In this war there are no heroes and men do not ride off into the sunset. They stay down in the muck and the mire with the dirty realities of war.
Despite nearly a century’s worth of history between today and World War II, the genre continues to be an inexhaustible well for cinematic storytelling. “Fury,” David Ayer’s newest film occurs during the final passage of the Allied European campaign– the 1945 push to Berlin through a hundred miles of hard road and bad luck. Collier and his four man hardscrabble tank crew are sent around the countryside on missions they dutifully fulfill without asking why, wantonly cutting down lives along the way.
Boyd Swan (Shia LaBeouf), the tank crew’s gunner leans his filthy face in close to their new crew member, Private Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman).
“Just wait till you see what one man can do to another,” he hisses, leaky eyes fixed on the trembling Ellison.
The gory spectacle of combat waiting only moments ahead for the crew reveals the truth about men soon enough. There is nothing glamorous about this war. It is damp and dirty, its participants are half-mad, wearied to death and numb to its bloodsoaked realities.
“Fury” is exciting and exhausting in equal measure. The crew of the eponymous tank engage in desperate battles against the superior might of Germany’s machines of war, and the combat sequences are tense in the most enjoyable way.
This comes as a surprise from writer/director Ayer who is better known for his script work with “The Fast and the Furious” and “U-571” than his directorial prowess. Unfortunately, the moments between these action scenes are lifeless and drag the narrative. The crew of the Fury stand around exchanging quips, staring pensively and smoking endless Lucky Strikes with little of import to say. Each crewman has a nickname that is far more illustrative of his character than anything they say or do. Swan is nicknamed “Bible” because he is ambiguously Christian. Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña), is hispanic, mumbling in spanish in case one forgets the fact. And in a staggering move of freshman-year film school hubris Collier’s nickname is “Wardaddy.” Yes, you read that correctly. One wishes desperately for some show and not tell from Ayers at times.
“You’re an animal, a dog,” intones “Wardaddy” as he kicks and beats his petulant, hillbilly mechanic, Grady “Coon-A**” Travis (Jon Bernthal) as a severe father would his son.
“All you understand is the first or the boot.”
After a surprise attack by nazi child soldiers that leaves Private Ellison unable to pull the trigger on them, “Wardaddy” forces him to shoot an unarmed German captive in the back as a kind of character building lesson. He then sternly chides Ellison about eating before their next mission.
In case it was not clearly understood, “Warddady” is a father figure amongst all these men, a stern, complicated American avatar of the Greatest Generation, murderous warts and all. It does not hurt that his perfectly coiffed hairdo will be the model of hipster Millennials for years to come.
For all the aforementioned reasons, a character(less) driven second act brings the momentum of the film nearly to a halt. It is only in the desperate final battle in the crossroads of a quaint German hamlet that “Fury” regains its strengths as a fraught and grim war film without glamor. Curiously bright green and red tracer bullets screech through the night, and elite SS soldiers charge the Fury like hapless goons from the “GI. Joe” cartoon of the 1980s. The stakes are so high and the tone so dour it all proceeds without a hitch. In the end we learn how men like “Wardaddy” are made, to the chagrin of a viewer or otherwise.
Ayer’s “Fury” skirts the edge of greatness without tumbling across the divide to the place where the masterful films dwell. The thrilling spectacle of tanks battling and the solid performances from the principal cast are three-quarters of this cinematic battle. But when the smoke clears without revealing much of the men we’ve spent over two hours with, it leaves us wanting more. The walking, talking theme“Wardaddy” and his misfit children will always remain vile and enigmatic, long after the war has been won.