Writer/director David Ayer has spent his career writing about what happens in the space between men at times of enormous stress, and he's got a really brutal, nasty overall sensibility. He broke through with his scripts for “The Fast & The Furious” and “Training Day,” and then made the jump to directing as well with “Harsh Times,” starring Christian Bale.
Any first-time director who manages to someone as difficult as Bale and survives deserves some respect, and Ayer strikes me as someone who is struggling to make serious but entertaining films that explore these certain themes in certain ways, mixing up where and when they take place, but essentially circling the same ideas repeatedly. His new film, “Fury,” feels like a bid for respectability, a hope that he might be headed back into awards season. I'm not someone who writes about awards, so I have no idea how it'll do, but as a simple piece of storytelling, it's pretty well-made, and occasionally, I think it even gets great.
The film's best moments are those focused on combat, and Ayer does a tremendous job of creating the details of daily life for a combat tank team in the waning days of WWII. The film details 24 hours for Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) and the other men of the Fury, a tank crew who have been together since Africa. They're now in the final clean-up phase of the war in Germany. When they lose one of their number, they are assigned a replacement, and Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) is totally unprepared for what he steps into. Trained as a typist, Norman isn't even sure he can kill someone, making him no use at all to Wardaddy.
What follows is a struggle for the soul of this kid, as Wardaddy sets about trying to strip away any hesitation or humanity that might get the rest of the crew killed. We see that the other men aboard the tank are all deeply damaged by the war so far. Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf) has a real knack for killing, but he's also deeply religious. Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) is a redneck swamp mutant with an odd sweet side. And Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena) copes with everything he's seen and done by staying deeply drunk all the time. None of them are sure what to make of Norman, and he's terrified to see what combat has done to them.
LaBeouf takes a fair amount of hell as a public figure, and he's brought some of it on himself, certainly, but it overshadows any conversation about his work. He's good here, and he and Pitt have a very interesting energy between them. Bernthal can play this sort of thing in his sleep by now, and he's fine, and I think Pena is good considering how thin the role is. When you hire this crew, you want to hire actors who can suggest all sorts of depth to these characters even when the film can't slow down to really earn any of it, and the cast does exactly what they're hired to do. Lerman is very good in his role, but the speed of his emotional journey stretches credibility. It makes more sense thematically than it does as something real.
There are some harrowing sequences here, and Ayer has a real knack for staging visceral combat footage. There's a great sequence in a field involving a column of American tanks and one particularly persistent German Tiger, and in general, any time the bullets fly, the film comes to life.
But there are also some narrative dead-ends that don't pay off in the way Ayer intended, including a major set-piece set in a small occupied down that is almost a half-hour long, and disturbingly rapey. There are a lot of big ideas and big emotions that Ayer tried to pack into this sequence, and Alicia von Rittberg is both very beautiful and very effective as Emma, a local girl who helps calm Norman down enough to finally become the killing machine Wardaddy needs him to be. Ultimately, though, it's the place where you can feel Ayer pulling the strings most aggressively, and it rings false as a whole.
The film course-corrects by the end, and it becomes a last stand film as the crew of the Fury find themselves standing at a crossroads, literally, determined to hold off over 300 German SS soldiers. There is very little chance of anyone being terribly surprised by anything that happens in this sequence, but it is expertly calibrated, and there is some remarkable work in it.
If you're looking for a war movie that defuses the notion of the “Good War” and that feels like it works well as both exaggerated movie violence and unapologetic presentation of the ugly truth of combat, “Fury” has much to offer. But at the end of things, I think I still prefer Ayer's other 2014 film, “Sabotage,” because there was an admirably sleazy pulse to the endeavor, and I thought Schwarzenegger had a great time with a rock-solid ensemble. Watching “Fury,” I found it hard to shake Brad Pitt's other big WWII film, and it feels to me like his character in this film is a guy who wishes, in his heart of hearts, that he could deal with things the way Lt. Aldo Raine did. “Fury” may be determined to be bleak and ugly, but it never really earns the larger emotional resonance that it reaches for.
“Fury” is in theaters everywhere October 17th.