By Jarrod Jones. The clouds never part in David Ayer’s Fury, keeping Brad Pitt and his mud-encrusted howling commandos (John Bernthal, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña and Logan Lerman) draped in a perpetual gray gloom. Ensconced in the thick of Germany just one month before the Nazi’s unconditional surrender in May of 1945, every act depicted in Fury – mostly violent, rarely kind – is bathed in wide, blunt strokes of gray. It’s one of the film’s many frustrating attempts at visual metaphor, and tragically, it’s probably the most effective.
Fury easily recalls the violent, rousing potboilers from the days of Sam Peckinpah and Robert Aldrich, where men like Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson would grit their teeth and hatefully chortle at the wanton bloodshed that surrounded them. David Ayer’s latest doesn’t completely co-opt those halcyon days of machismo – films dealing in the wars of man will ever live in the earnest shadows of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan – but the film’s unsubtle, jingoistic efforts to drape Pitt & Co. in robes of unquestionable valor are problematic at best, embarrassing at worst, and hilariously absurd by the film’s final act.
Fury‘s bravado would be acceptable – perhaps even laudable – if Ayer (who also wrote the film’s screenplay) could balance the film’s violence with its humanity. From its very first sequence, where Staff Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Pitt) lies in wait to plunge a blade into the ocular cavity of a SS soldier, Fury keeps its pitiless tension coming at a steady clip, leaving room for little else. And Pitt is not alone in his bloodlust; Fury‘s tight ensemble of baggy-eyed men-of-might include a wide spectrum of war film stereotypes that would make even Richard Brooks blush.
There’s John Bernthal’s Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis, who’s about as worldly and subtle as his nickname suggests (it seems that placing a fellow soldier in a headlock while bellowing, “THIS IS WARRR” is about as close to Oscar-Bait as this film will allow him); there’s also Michael Peña’s Trini “Gordo” Garcia, whose consistent, Jonah Hill-esque deadpan is the only thing that keeps Peña slightly elevated above this otherwise perfunctory token role; and there’s Shia LaBeouf’s Boyd “Bible” Swan, a purportedly pious man who keeps his Bible gripped almost as tightly as his trigger finger. Because Ayer’s screenplay rarely gives these men anything more to do than kill or show insolence to their sergeant, LaBeouf, Bernthal, and Peña are never called upon to use their talents to bring real pathos to Fury. Which is fine. But this is a film that insists on shoe-horning ideas into its spectacle. Such ideas need someone to help them grow, and sadly none of these men are up to the task.
Enter Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a fresh-faced new recruit dragged into the final stretch of the war, and a former typist with exactly the same amount of pacifistic tendency one might expect from such an archetype – though in Fury, all olive branches are scorched when you have a grizzled, Lucky Strike-chomping dude like Pitt peacocking around. (Consider Lerman as James Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and try not to find John Wayne in Pitt’s Collier.) Ellison has been tasked as a pinch-hitting gunner for Collier’s battle-worn Sherman tank (christened, rather unironically, as “Fury”), but the boy has nary experienced battle outside of a dog-eared Hemingway novel, and to be thrown into a claustrophobic hull filled with memories of spilled blood (and the stains to prove it) means that it’s only a matter of time before boy is forged into man.
By the time Ayer decides to inject poignancy into Fury, so much numbing carnage has already taken place that the film has to screech to a dead stop in order for characterization to attempt to take root. That attempt fails, even in the face of a quiet, overlong sequence that features two German women (Anamaria Marinca, Alicia von Rittberg) who play an integral part in bringing Wardaddy and Norman closer together. It’s the relationship between these two men that should be the linchpin to this entire fracas, but Pitt and Lerman’s brotherly understanding can only boast pale pastels, ultimately washed away in Fury‘s slate-gray mud.
The film functions far more ably when it sets out to fight the muscular, angry war it’s inherently designed to wage. There’s a catharsis to be found in Fury‘s battle sequences, arranged and choreographed so confidently that large, clumsy tanks dance gracefully around empty, war-torn countrysides. And there’s a soothing familiarity to the film’s skirmish, an almost Lucas-ian gloss that effectively desensitizes the audience to its thundering savagery. (Rifles and machine-guns discharge with a red and green glow, and the gunfire whizzes through the theater with a laser-blasting zing.) Ayer’s dialogue even has a certain Attack Of The Clones zeal to it: “Ideals are peaceful,” Pitt warns his young protégé. “History is violent.” That kind of gibberish has a place in a movie such as this. But when a film like Fury tries so hard to be smart when all it needs to be is blunt, lines like that take on undeserved airs. The film tries to be heavy, but its ideas hit with the force of a feather pillow.