Fury Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman. Directed by David Ayer. Rated R. Opens Friday.
Having exhausted every possible variation on unrelentingly intense police and/or criminal activity in LA, David Ayer (writer of Training Day, writer/director of Harsh Times and End of Watch) leaps backward in time with Fury, tackling the unrelenting intensity of tank warfare in World War II. His approach to the war movie is at once refreshingly old-fashioned and disturbingly modern. On the one hand, Fury is very much an analog effort (even if it was shot digitally), employing actual tanks on genuine terrain and avoiding the sort of hyper-real action filmmaking that Steven Spielberg pioneered with Saving Private Ryan (which now informs umpteen comic-book flicks). On the other hand, this film, like Ryan, aims to depict the brutality of combat with gruesome candor, showing everything that was sanitized out of the classic war films being lovingly emulated. It’s a tricky balancing act that Ayer navigates with only partial success.
For added futility, the war is already nearly over. It’s spring 1945, and Allied troops are steadily advancing on Berlin; nobody knows exactly when V-E Day will be, but it’s clearly not far off. A petrified young Army typist named Ellison (Logan Lerman), who just wants to stay alive until then, has his goal severely challenged when he’s unexpectedly drafted to replace the dead machine gunner in a tank crew headed by Sgt. Don Collier (Brad Pitt), who goes by the cheery nickname “Wardaddy.” Collier has groomed the other men in this tin can—scripture-quoting “Bible” (Shia LaBeouf), alcoholic “Gordo” (Michael Peña), scary redneck “Coon-Ass” (Jon Bernthal)—into expert killing machines, and he sets out to do the same with Ellison, lest the new kid get them all killed. Trapped behind enemy lines, this unholy quintet will eventually be forced to take on an entire SS regiment by themselves, fighting a largely pointless battle.
Well, it has the usual point: War is hell. Ayer throws himself so wholeheartedly into Fury’s grueling charnel-house climax that he sometimes seems to think he’s directing a slasher flick rather than a war movie; it’s an amazingly sustained nightmare, as thrilling as it is troubling. His shaky grasp on the film’s tone elsewhere, however, makes it hard to avoid perceiving this onslaught of horror as mere exploitation.
Pitt gives a commanding, complex performance, but the other soldiers, including Ellison, are too one-dimensional to allow any real insight regarding deliberate military dehumanization. And a lengthy mid-film interlude in which Collier urges the kid to lose his virginity with a German girl struggles to accurately reflect conduct that borders on rape (horribly common in wartime even today) without seeming to celebrate it. Perched midway between grave and grotesque, Fury constantly threatens to topple over.