Unable to steer around a cluster of plot holes, otherwise known as hoary war-movie cliches, Fury is a surprisingly clunky vehicle for Brad Pitt and his intense young crew, and a step backward for writer/director David Ayer.
Ayer has built his career around films that explore traditional masculinity under fire, focusing on characters in modern law enforcement (Training Day, Dark Blue, End of Watch, Sabotage). But he received his first writing credit for U-571 (2000), an intense World War II suspense thriller about a submarine crew.
He returns to that territory with Fury, which picks up in April 1945. A tough sergeant known as Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) leads an equally tough, if tiny, group of men inside a tank they’ve dubbed “Fury.” The crew has managed to survive multiple campaigns over several years, but have just suffered their first casualty, and thus must accept the fresh-faced Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) in the dying days of the war.
Naturally, the crew doesn’t know that the war in Europe will end the following month, although they know that German troops are surrendering left and right. What they know and what they follow are orders, and they’ve been ordered to continue pressing onward into Germany, even as they pass by masses of civilians with their hands up and see their comrades blown to bits.
The crew, formerly a tight fighting unit, suddenly divides with Norman’s arrival. Wardaddy, who starts by treating Norman as cruelly and coldly as possible, warms up to the kid, despite his inclinations toward cowardice. Norman, while still holding on to a vestige of his naive humanity, simultaneously starts down the path toward being a bloodthirsty, gun-happy warrior.
The other three members of the crew, however, become more hostile to Norman and even to Wardaddy, perhaps sensing that the middle-aged Wardaddy feels fatherly and protective toward Norman. Grady (Jon Bernthal), Gordo (Michael Peña), and ‘Bible’ (Shia LaBeouf) are not well-defined as individuals. Instead, they slot neatly into the WWII stereotypes of Nasty Dude, Mexican Dude, and Religious Dude.
This is, in itself, disappointing coming from Ayer, especially since all five men are trapped inside a war machine that is the equivalent of a police squad car. Ayer chooses to ignore the men in the back seat — effectively, “bad guys” on their way to jail — and focuses on the “good guys” in the front seat, with Wardaddy driving and Norman riding shotgun.
It’s the equivalent, then, of Ayer’s police dramas, with Wardaddy and Norman essentially partners, with the older man teaching the younger how to survive. This approach comes home in a lengthy scene on a rare “night off” in a captured village; it’s awkward and uncomfortable and filled with portents.
Those portents never really pay off, though, which is one reason why Fury fails to engage as the kind of authentic experience it aspires to be. Ayer, who so often has bucked expectations in his work, here gives into a harsh sentimentality, riffing on scenes and themes that are overly familiar. An early example comes when Norman falls apart during his first day in combat, whereupon Wardaddy forces him to confront his demons. It’s the sort of scene that has played out in countless movies about men in battle, whether during wartime or in street fights, and it’s far too tired to be effective, even with Pitt and Lerman emoting like crazy.
By keeping the action limited to what the tank crew can see and hear for themselves, Fury earns points for its fresh perspective. Yet it succumbs far too often to exhausted scenarios and pretty much plays out as might be expected, which diminishes its impact, resulting in a damp victory for the Allies.
The film opens across Dallas and Fort Worth on Friday, October 17.