Fury **** (out of five)
David Ayer has written some hardcore men-with-men films: U-571 (a submarine in war movie), Training Day, Dark Blue (an excellent and thrilling look at the LAPD during the Los Angeles riots) and End of Watch (which he also directed) among them. He likes to write (and now direct) men in uniform, in camaraderie, in crisis, and his politics always find sympathy with his men, even if they’re corrupt, anti-heroic, criminal, or worse. All of these men have dirty jobs, Ayers’ films seem to say, and the men are gonna get dirty doin’ ‘em.
This theme repeats itself in Fury, which is to tanks as U-571 was to submarines and End of Watch was to LAPD squad cars. Set in a tank (named FURY) in the very, very waning days of World War Two, it is a post-Saving Private Ryan anti-war film that manages, in its third act, to become an old-fashioned World War Two rabble-rouser where instead of lamenting man’s inhumanity to man, you’re cheering on our (anti?)heroes to shoot them Nazis but good.
The structure is simple, and repetitive: tank travels and we get to know the men inside; tank sees action; repeat… up until a certain point. There are two scenes in the film’s first two acts that deviate from this essential structure, and they are both very fine, examining two sides of what the war has done to the tank’s commander, Don “Wardaddy” Collier. These scenes are original, which is important, because much of the rest of the film’s set-up is not. We meet a crew, and they get a new man, who may as well have been named “Audience Surrogate” but who is actually called Norman, is as fresh-faced as they come, and played by Logan Lerman. Norman is a young clerk, baffled to be assigned to the machine-gun of a tank, and will have to become a man by the end credits. “Wardaddy” Collier will be his teacher, mentor, Jedi-master.
As Collier, Brad Pitt has been prettier, cuter, hotter and sexier, but he’s never been as manly-man handsome as he is here (with the possible exception of his role in Inglorious Basterds, which was the comic version of this). He’s very good, despite being lumbered with the film’s most portentous lines. Subtlety is not Ayer’s thing – at all. He wants his themes understood by everyone and he makes sure you get everything, even if he has to spell it out, which he does. As such, although a film of great clarity, it’s not actually a film of great depth. War is f**ked, and men in war do f**ked-up things: that’s about it.
But it’s exceptionally well crafted and each individual sequence is superb. There are half a dozen enormously entertaining set-pieces at least. In one, Ayer gives us a portrait of the nuts-and-bolts second-to-second tactics of close-range tank battle in a way that Peter Weir gave us ships in broadside combat in Master and Commander: The Far Side of The World. In another, we really get to see what tanks can do to a gorgeous little German town.
And then there is the finale, that third act, which jettisons war-as-hell and brings us war as adventure. It is a perfect half hour or so of movie, deeply soaked in an understanding of good climaxes from the full spectrum of action-oriented war films since they began to be made. The ensemble acting here, from the tank’s crew, feels awe-inspiringly authentic, never more than when these men are simply doing their jobs: loading ammo, firing ammo, and being terrified. Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal and Shia LaBeouf are the actors, and they’re great. Supposedly there was an enormous commitment made before production in creating the crew, involving boot-camps, actual tank training and the like, and it is reported that Ayer established a cult-leader like presence on set, admitting to playing “emotional games” with his men. Whatever the method, it worked.
This great last act may also be the one that turns you off, precisely because it is heroic. I bought into it all the way, and actually felt it was essential, because the first two acts are, frankly, relentlessly bleak. In the end, Fury is a war movie as much as an anti-war movie, and a damned fine one.