Two stars. Rated R, for profanity and relentless battlefield violence and gore
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.17.14
Classic World War II movies, absent the cynicism and despair that later infected so many big-screen depictions of the Vietnam quagmire, laced their stories with honor, chivalry, moral fortitude and an absolute respect for the chain of command.
The Nazi enemy may have behaved like vicious, amoral swine, but our stalwart boys worked together with courage and righteousness, guided by the innovative strategies of battlefield stalwarts whose ingenuity helped trump sometimes superior forces.
This classic archetype continued for decades thereafter, building to modern classics such as Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and HBO’s lavish miniseries, Band of Brothers, both of which gained their power from a rich tapestry of characters about whom we cared very, very deeply.
It would appear that this cinematic model has fallen out of favor.
Writer/director David Ayer’s Fury presents the latter days of the European campaign as the equivalent of an inner-city street fight between drug gangs, with the grunts on our side no better than the animals wearing the Nazi cross. The so-called “good guys” in this unpalatable story seem modeled on the thugs who tortured and humiliated Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib; early on, in fact, we’re granted a sequence of American GIs behaving just that badly with a captured German soldier.
It’s interesting — carrying this observation even further — that this story’s sole act of genuine kindness, of benevolent altruism, is offered by one of those aforementioned Nazi monsters. We could call it dramatic irony, but I’m not willing to give Ayer that much credit.
Three of the five primary characters in this film are one-dimensional brutes granted only a hiccup of actual characterization: superficial affectations implied solely by nicknames such as Gordo, Bible and Coon-Ass.
(Just in passing, I’d love to declare a moratorium on movies with characters who never seem to have real names, but instead are granted stupid monikers better suited to comic book villains. It has become a tiresome and frankly irritating cliché.)
Our other two protagonists, while graced with a bit more presence and personality, aren’t that much more likable ... but we eventually bond with them, to a degree, solely because we’ve gotta care about somebody in this mean-spirited mess.
And “mean-spirited” is this film’s prevailing tone: no surprise, since Ayer is the enraged scripter of nihilistic cop dramas such as Training Day and End of Watch, and earlier this year wrote and directed the offensively deplorable Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, Sabotage. Ayer clearly doesn’t think much of his fellow man, and a little of that contemptuous vitriol goes a long way.
Given this new film’s 134-minute length, that’s a very long way.
All that aside, Ayer isn’t entirely ignorant in the ways of engaging storytelling, choosing to present the timeless theme of innocence lost: a sure-fire heartbreaker that, yes, works its magic, even here. If only fitfully.
“Ideals are for peacetime,” our overwhelmed young rookie is told. “History is violent.”
The setting is April 1945, as the war-weary Allies make their final push across Germany, engaging fanatical Nazi platoons stubbornly clinging to the illusion that they still could win. The story’s titular character, a Sherman tank dubbed Fury, is commanded by Don Collier (Brad Pitt), a battle-hardened army sergeant dubbed Wardaddy. He and his men — Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña) and Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) — roll into an Allied camp after having just lost their fifth man, with whom they have shared campaigns since the war began.
That fellow’s replacement turns out to be Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a recent recruit trained to be a clerk typist, who — for reasons unspecified — has been sent to the front lines of the Second Armored Division, to become Wardaddy’s new assistant driver/gunner.
Wardaddy doesn’t want him, which comes as no surprise: one of the few genuinely intelligent responses on display here. A kid never even taught to shoot isn’t likely to be an asset in a tank under fire. But, thanks to the application of some tough love — I don’t know what else to call it — Norman quickly finds himself seated alongside Gordo, nervously watching the bushes as Fury rolls out on another mission.
What follows — the entire film — takes place in a mere 24 hours. And, I must say, it’s amazing how quickly Norman morphs into a hardened killing machine who also seems to know the tank inside and out. That’s Hollywood, I guess.
Norman’s initial battlefield “blooding” is fast, furious and quickly concluded: a prologue that segues to a curious interlude in a rescued German hamlet. By this time, Wardaddy has developed a paternal sympathy for Norman; the two of them come across two frightened German women — Irma (Anamaria Marinca) and the younger, more voluptuous Emma (Alicia von Rittberg) — who gradually relax in their presence.
But then Bible, Gordo and Coon-Ass crash the party, and what follows is a bizarre dinner sequence apparently modeled on the Mad Hatter’s tea party from “Alice in Wonderland.” Watching — nay, enduring — this clumsy sidebar, with its ludicrous dialogue and bewildering behavior, I couldn’t help thinking how much better, and sharper, somebody like Quentin Tarantino could have concocted the scenario.
Instead, Ayer wastes our time, and embarrasses his cast, with raised-eyebrow, long-suffering-sigh nonsense.
No matter, because it’s just a pause before the main event, when circumstances will force Fury and her men to hold their ground — all by themselves, at a key crossroads — against (class, all together now!) overwhelming odds.
Giving the devil his due, Ayer does know how to stage a melee; this final battle is damn impressive. The verisimilitude, as well, is strong throughout the entire film; Ayer, cinematographer Roman Vasyanov and production designer Andrew Menzies persuasively convey a sense of the wearying, mud-wallowing slog that characterized the final months of the European campaign.
So, yes; this film looks, feels and sounds authentic. Too bad it couldn’t be populated by at least a few kinder, gentler characters. Or characters of any kind, for that matter.
Pitt is stoic, aloof and grimly amused: a hardened veteran trying to salvage the remnants of his humanity, and not succeeding too well. Wardaddy particularly loathes German SS officers, and goes berserk in their presence; we’ve no idea why. He’s practical and pragmatic, and thus far has (mostly) held his unit together ... characteristics we get more because somebody tells us, as opposed to Pitt conveying them via his performance.
It’s not Pitt’s fault; he has presence to burn, and it’s not hard to see soldiers willingly placing their lives in such a man’s hands. But not even Pitt can make a silk purse out of this sow’s ear of a script, and if he looks confused during the aforementioned dinner sequence, as if uncertain what to do next ... well, that’s the fault of Ayer’s script.
Lerman’s Norman is this story’s saving grace. He imbues the frightened Norman with the clueless vulnerability that served him so well in 2012’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and the result is our immediate emotional involvement. Even as Norman succumbs to battlefield lust, Lerman keeps the kid sympathetic and virtuous, and he remains our only reason to care about what happens next.
LaBeouf’s Boyd is incomprehensible: a stone-cold killer who nonetheless quotes the Bible, and apparently sees himself as God’s Grim Reaper. Between LaBeouf’s weirdly erratic performance and the character’s lack of texture, it’s impossible to get a bead on this guy; when Boyd tears up, as he does frequently, it just seems stupid.
Bernthal’s Coon-Ass is a mindless thug with about as much personality as a faux TV wrestler. Peña’s Gordo is even worse: little more than the gang’s token Latino.
Jason Isaacs, in his few brief scenes as Capt. Waggoner, delivers a level of convincing acting gravitas mostly absent from the rest of the film. It’s a shame we couldn’t spend more time with him.
Granted, war is hell, and this film certainly conveys as much; the R rating is well earned for gory battlefield carnage. But if Ayer also intends to suggest that ground-level American soldiers are sadistic, undisciplined, soulless monsters with no respect for themselves, for chain of command, or anything else — during World War II, in Vietnam, Iraq or anywhere else — I don’t buy it.
Or, let’s put it this way: Fury is too clumsy to make that case. In the great panoply of one-against-many war dramas — and Ayer’s final shot clearly evokes the climactic camera pull-back that concludes 1964’s Zulu — Fury is no more than a mean-spirited, thumb-in-the-eye betrayal of heroism, idealism and every other virtuous human quality that comes to mind.