War is hell, goes the saying we've all heard so many times. But screenwriter David Ayer's fifth - and finest - feature as director is intent on saying it in a more visceral, blunt way, without pulling any punches just because there's a Hollywood star top-lining its cast.
Entirely set in and around an American tank in the final stretch of World War II, as the Allied push into Berlin meets fanatical, desperate resistance, Fury is part classic platoon picture about men under pressure, part acute character study of men in war, but is notable for refusing the standard war-movie heroics, replaced by a disenchanted, downbeat tone.
Mr. Ayer, who served in the American Navy submarine service, is clearly fascinated by the dynamics of male bonding and the pressure involved in snap decisions on edgy situations, blurring the line between right and wrong; he came to prominence with his script for Antoine Fuqua's Training Day, and his work as both screenwriter (The Fast and the Furious, Dark Blue) and director (Street Kings, End of Watch) betrays his fascination with the close-quarters push-and-pull of men on a mission.
Fury encapsulates all of his recurring themes in a script that is very redolent of Training Day, with a newcomer being taught the ropes of a job that turns out much harder and tougher to swallow than he could have expected. Here, it's the coming of age of Norman Ellison (an excellent Logan Lerman), a pool typist parachuted into a veteran tank crew who has just lost one of its gunners and who has survived against all odds in a branch with a high death rate due to the many structural weaknesses of American tanks, especially when up against the technically superior German vehicles.
For the inexperienced Norman, the next few days are going to be a rude awakening, the realities of violent conflict encroaching on him as Mr. Ayer telescopes the experience of war into a heightened, dazed, bloody blur. Only base survival instincts and nimbleness will keep you alive, but Norman also has to prove himself to a crew that has been hardened and numbed by war.
The director is particularly attentive to the group dynamics between the crew, led by the tough, no-nonsense Don Collier aka "Wardaddy" (Brad Pitt), one of those leaders men will follow into hell in the knowledge he will do his damnedest to bring them back alive. Mr. Pitt is excellent here in the elegant ballet between toughness and vulnerability the part requires, as a man who will stop at nothing to fulfill his mission but works hard at not letting the desperation and fear show, even though he will occasionally let his guard down when no one - except maybe his enemies - is looking.
The relationship between Collier and Norman develops as a sort of "tough love" upbringing of an innocent, naïf young man by a father wanting to prepare him for the worst. Mr. Pitt's performance anchors the film with a rich, protean multiplicity of readings: parent, best friend, confessor, leader, tyrant, boss, savior, huckster.
Fury is at its best in the claustrophobic but intense close-quarters scenes where the crew — Collier, Norman, latino "Gordo" (Ayer regular Michael Peña), Southern redneck Grady (Jon Bernthal) and devout evangelical Boyd (Shia LaBeouf) — shares more than even they would like to; the film becomes a sort of WWII version of Samuel Maoz's Lebanon, where the tank becomes a microcosm of the world outside in all its contradictions and humanity.
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is that Mr. Ayer has no interest in either sugarcoating or apologizing for the violence meted out to enemies during World War II. The "Greatest Generation" so often lionized for their role in fighting for freedom is here portrayed, quite realistically, as men dealing with unspeakable horrors and attempting to make sense of the apparent randomness and futility of war, finding what respite they could in the rough camaraderie enjoyed in the few moments of calm between storms.
That the film has a Fullerian, almost browbeating intensity is a very good thing and a credit to Mr. Ayer. But the writer/director may have over-reached in Fury's final stretch; by drawing the climactic battle out the way he does, what until then had been a punishingly backbreaking sense of workaday resilience gains an overly heroic, symbolic significance that seems to be there to give the audience a respite, and a reason for the all the mayhem that has come before.
It's a shame, because what makes Fury such a fascinating work to come out of modern Hollywood - even though it was financed independently - is precisely its reluctance to go with standard good-vs-evil fireworks and give a more down to earth, realistic spin to the traditional hero narrative. The ending makes it seem as Mr. Ayer did not find the strength to take it all away; but there's still enough strength left to make sure it was not in vain. And with Fury, David Ayer proves he's more than just a smart screenwriter with a directing jones.
Cast Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal, Jason Isaacs
Director and screenwriter David Ayer; cinematographer Roman Vasyanov (colour, widescreen); composer Steven Price; designer Andrew Menzies; costumes Owen Thornton; editors Dody Dorn and Jay Cassidy; visual effects Jerome Chen; producers Bill Block, Mr. Ayer, Ethan Smith and John Lesher; production companies QED International, Le Grisbi Productions and Crave Films in association with LStar Capital
Screened October 15th 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon (distributor press screening)