War Is An Ulcer-Inducing Gore Porno
If your life isn’t stressful enough and you really want to feel like you need a Xanax rail and some ulcer meds, then Fury is for you, a movie that should really come with a decompression chamber. I’m not convinced David Ayer is a brilliant storyteller, but the dude can film a hell of a battle scene.
In the grand pantheon of war movies, we’ve seen war is righteous, war is hell, war is a drug, and now Fury, if it can be given the benefit of a coherent message for the sake of argument, has given us war is an ulcer-inducing gore porno. War as a meat grinder. And what better setting for a film about war as a dehumanizing meat machine than a tank unit? Use your machines to kill their machines, try not to get burned to death. An intense way to spend two hours (me) or a horrifying nightmare you’ll never want to relive (my date), depending on your perspective.
It’s 1945 and the end is in sight in the European theater, paradoxically a time when the soldiers were the most beaten down and most capable of atrocities against each other, as the soon-to-be losers were at their most desperate, and the soon-to-be winners were at their most frustrated – that the enemy couldn’t just know when they were beat and stop the killing – and disgusted – at the scope of SS crimes which were becoming more clear and the child soldiers now being used as defenders. It’s an interesting setting, and one that tends to get less play in movies. I would’ve loved to see a Band of Brothers/The Pacific-style narrative based on the account of someone who was there. With Fury, we get a fantastic slice-of-life take that at its best reminds you of Master and Commander – bringing home the sights, sounds, camaraderie and B.O. of the period – that’s unfortunately glued to a story that feels alternately porny, sensationalist, and schlocky.
Brad Pitt, who I’m not sure ever stopped being Aldo Raine, plays Wardaddy, a grizzled (but super hot and with a Macklemore haircut) tank commander who the movie can’t decide whether to glorify or demonize. He’s supposed to be complicated, but he sort of just comes off convoluted, idealistic one minute and brutally pragmatic the next. At first I read Wardaddy as a sort of Curtis LeMay-type figure, a guy you’d want on your side in battle, but also a fanatical psychopath you wouldn’t want to meet for dinner. Unfortunately, he’s also supposed to be the educated warrior (he speaks fluent German and can identify Bible verses even though he’s not religious), the gruff father figure, the reluctant badass, etc. Eventually I realized he was just the war movie equivalent of a Big Gulp with every soda variety mixed in.
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One scene that especially didn’t work for me was Wardaddy forcing Logan Lerman to execute a German as some kind of tank-dude frat hazing exercise. It’s not that I doubt impromptu executions ever happened, but I find it much more believable the way it was set up in, say, Saving Private Ryan or even other parts of Fury – a rash decision. I don’t quite believe that an American officer slapped around a subordinate and belittled him into murdering some random, unarmed, begging German soldier in front of dozens or hundreds of laughing Americans. That it’s hard to tell whether the Americans are the good guys in this is sort of an interesting twist on the usual Hollywood WWII formula, but it would work much better if the ingredients were more believable.
Another scene that’s a microcosm of the whole movie: at one point, Brad Pitt and Logan Lerman end up inside a German woman’s apartment inside a town they’ve just taken. The way Ayer builds tension and moral ickiness is masterful – is Brad Pitt going to do something horrible to these ladies? But certain details just feel cartoony. It turns out there’s a hot young thing hiding under the floorboards to keep being ravaged by conquering soldiers. Which feels believable enough, though the part where she emerges from her rat hole in freshly-curled Pantene hair and party dress does not. The girl and Lerman have a moment, and then the other tankensteins show up drunk to ruin the party. Now, which of the crew would you expect to be the scary rapist – the Bible-thumping mustache guy (Shia Labeouf)? The comedic Mexican dude (Michael Peña)? Or maybe the bent-nosed redneck with Forrest Gump hair and tobacco-ravaged teeth (Jon Bernthal)? I’ll give you a hint, he reps Georgia when he suggests rape. If it were up to Hollywood, the Bible Belt would be renamed “Rape Country.”
Fury is incredible when it’s depicting battle. The way tracer rounds deflect off the tanks into the stratosphere is one of the coolest effects I’ve seen in a long time, and tank-on-tank dog fights are the ultimate high-tension chess match. Loser gets burned alive, lol! The effect is so stressful that right after one battle scene, a guy in the front row of my screening stood up and screamed “SHUT THE F*CK UP!” at the top of his lungs, apparently to no one in particular. I don’t know if he had tourette’s or what, but he was led out of the room by security and then allowed back in a few minutes later, a confusing scene my only takeaway from which is that Fury is a film that can aggravate your neurological disorder.
It’s refreshing to be reminded that a brutalist action film without much artistic value shouldn’t be that hard to make. It’s easy to forget in the age of quick cuts and shaky cam, but Fury reminds you that dudes shooting at each other and blowing stuff up is always going to be pretty watchable as long as the action is staged well and you can actually tell what the hell is going on. But Fury‘s ability to be appreciated as a slice-of-historical-life war movie is directly at odds with some of its sensationalist elements. For a movie about hard men doing hard things – “Ideals are peaceful, history is violent,” Pitt says, in one especially No Fear shirt-esque moment – the characters nonsensically abandon their posts to have a cry over dead comrades in the middle of firefights and seem uncharacteristically broken up over dead horses. Shia Labeouf acts well, but his “Bible” character feels like a ripoff of Barry Pepper in Saving Private Ryan. And when Michael Peña shows up to a party with his khaki buttoned up all the way to his throat with a gold chain over it, you wonder, “Wait, were there cholos in the 1940s?”
Maybe there were cholos in the 1940s, I don’t know, ask a cholo historian. All I know is that Fury, like Wardaddy, works best when it’s killing, which is most of the time.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.