Early on in Fury, the new World War II film starring Brad Pitt, an American column of tanks is seen creeping slowly into Germany. The convoy is, in fact, so deep into Nazi territory that enemy lines don’t really exist anymore. By the April, 1945 of the film’s setting, the Nazi opposition is a shambles, scattered and divided between those willing to surrender to the Allies, and those fighting to the last man, woman and child. One of the latter group catches the convoy by surprise, striking the lead tank with an explosive. The operator, engulfed in flames and howling in agony, climbs out of the tank, grabs his pistol, and shoots himself in the head.
It’s a disturbing moment of violence, small in comparison to the body count of the rest of the film (let alone the war), but completely unbecoming of the kind of war picture Fury is being sold as, or most other WWII films in general. Rather than showing American soldiers dismantling concentration camps, we get shots of German POWs herded into makeshift camps of their own; instead of the thunder and awe of D-Day, there’s the methodical reclaiming of Germany one town at a time. Where most other war genre films look to inspire patriotism and warm nostalgia, Fury’s so bogged down with moral weariness and thick-as-mud minutia that it often seems only capable of inspiring trench foot.
Marshalling this slog through unvarnished history is David Ayer, a writer and director of alternately gritty and syrupy impulses. Though well-established for crafting vibrant and dirty worlds of modern crime, Ayer’s nuanced looks at male-male relationships forged in hellfire have always given the trashiest of action films an emotional center. Professional male partnerships form the backbone of Ayer’s work, whether they’re viewed as a source of strength, as in 2012’s very good End of Watch, or a prelude to betrayal, as seen in his biggest hit, Training Day.
There’s a lot more of the second to be found in Fury, which plays like a version of Training Day in which the charismatic villain isn’t the corrupt Detective Alonzo Harris, but instead a quartet of irrevocably damaged soldiers.
Pitt stars as Sgt. Don Collier, commander of the titular tank, Fury. The film opens where most others would end, with Collier and the rest of his crew (Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal and Shia LaBeouf) closing in on Berlin, having long since lost any empathy for an enemy fought across multiple years and theaters. Providing a point of entry to the men’s established dynamic is Logan Lerman’s Norman Ellison, a green recruit trained in counting words-per-minute, not rounds-per-second. As part of his initiation, Ellison’s first task under Collier is to clear out the remains of the dead man he’s replacing that are still inside the tank.
Whereas an L.A.P.D. officer can be cast antagonistically without straining credulity, Ayer uses Fury to target a sacred cow of both American film and national history. His goal as both writer and director seems to be the creation of a Dozen Dozen-esque band of WWII anti-heroes retroactively influenced by modern, ambiguous warfare. Pitt’s presence, and whatever Inglourious Basterds-related baggage it entails, is entirely intentional: Fury removes Tarantino’s irony, metatextual winks, and fairy tale-structure, but keeps the brutality and anger.
The result is a film that’s frustrating, but often for compelling reasons. Ayer works to deconstruct the simplicity and rah-rah romanticism of many World War II films, and doing so requires deliberate, yet delicate maneuvering of his characters around landmines of war rarely touched upon in WWII action films. The most memorable setpieces aren’t the engagements with Nazi soldiers on the battlefield, but the tests of conviction once removed from it. Collier, positioned as the Kurtz to Ellison’s Marlow, is tasked with sustaining the morale and loyalty of the men who follow him, even when that means being party to actions that most cinema likes to think only a Nazi would be capable of.
It’s rare that a film with this setting would dare explore subjects like war crimes or civilian rape, much less let its ostensible heroes engage with them to varying degrees. The horror of the action scenes inspires a conflicted feeling in the viewer, one meant to match that of those perpetrating the violence, though not always successfully. Eventually, Fury’s swings at de-mythologizing American G.I.s gives way to an updated, gnarly myth of its own. Put another way: there are only so many ways to gun down a Nazi before combatants become cannon fodder, and divisive protagonists become generic ass-kickers. Ayer, while a fine director, too often falls back on stimulating hyper-violence as a substitute for proper humanization.
And yet, Fury’s final moments save an oftentimes-challenging film from being completely buried by genre requirements. Ayer’s dueling interests make Fury a compromised film, one too beholden to cliché (but well-performed) character types and action to deliver fully on its complicated thesis, and one too stop-start and heavy to keep explosion lovers from growing restless. Fury treads on thin ice from the get-go, but that it can do so from inside a 30-ton mass of metal without sinking makes for a viewing experience worth chewing over.
Like its 30-ton star, Fury can be laborious and awkward one moment, and shockingly powerful the next.