Some feats are unforgettable: We remember the Alamo, along with the 300 Spartans who died at Thermopylae. But a five-man American tank crew (actually, four men and a baby, to be more accurate) overwhelmed by a platoon of German soldiers? Not only did the standoff depicted in “Fury” never happen, but it will likely be long gone from moviegoers’ memories six months from now, after Sony’s marketing blows over and people go back to watching “Inglourious Basterds” — the other, better pulp World War II movie featuring Brad Pitt as a heavily scarred, slow-drawling Nazi hunter. With a disappointing domestic reception ahead, David Ayer’s first big-studio foray as director will rely on a strong showing overseas, where its fantasy of American exceptionalism will seem all the more egregious.
Until now, writer-director Ayer has largely focused his attention on gritty LAPD dramas, Tasering the genre back to life with such tell-it-like-it-is pics as “Training Day” and “End of Watch.” Set during the waning days of World War II, as the Allies advance on Berlin and the Nazis put up vicious resistance on their home turf, “Fury” shifts the director’s focus to military history. As such, the project marks a massive step forward in both ambition and scale for Ayer, but also brings disappointment. Though colorfully embellished with authentic detail and logistically complex to bring to the screen, Ayer’s script is bland at the most basic story level, undermined by cardboard characterizations and a stirring yet transparently silly climactic showdown.
Even so, the film benefits from the scribe’s usual research-based approach to capturing the tight, honor-bound dynamic of serving on the front lines, enriched by his ear for precise (and period-appropriate) technical patter. The pressure-cooker atmosphere is enhanced by the fact that Pitt’s character, Sgt. Don Collier (a diluted version of his Lt. Aldo Raine from “Basterds”), and his men are sardined into a Sherman tank in which they’ve been serving side by side since North Africa. They all have nicknames (Collier’s is “Wardaddy”), as does the tank itself: “FURY,” menacingly painted in all caps on its 76mm cannon barrel.
It’s a marvel of military service how men who might despise one another in civilian life can become like brothers in the field, and here, we get a sense of both the off-color squabbling and the deep-rooted camaraderie among these virtual siblings. Wardaddy’s team includes the Scripture-quoting “Bible” (Shia LaBeouf), Latino driver “Gordo” (Michael Pena, affecting an early-century Mexican accent) and barely evolved swamp-rat mechanic “Coon-Ass” (Jon Bernthal). Ayer introduces the team from within the tight confines of their tank, a space that doesn’t yield many good angles, but allows for some nifty lighting tricks. D.p. Roman Vasyanov’s favorite is clearly to frame just the actors’ eyes through the narrow slits of the tank’s armor.
These guys look and sound like they’ve been to hell and back (even pretty-boy LaBeouf, who appears with his face scruffy and teeth blacked out for the role). But don’t let the constant stream of personal, off-color insults fool you. Their views may differ, but they can agree on one thing: “Best job I ever had!” they exclaim, and Ayer clearly believes it. That’s not necessarily the case for baby-faced newcomer Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a clean-shaven, wet-behind-the-ears Army typist assigned to join them at the outset — more for reasons of dramatic convenience than practical necessity.
Norman serves as the audience’s proxy, allowing Ayer to show us the ropes as the kid is forced into a situation more intense than he’s ready to handle: Norman retches after discovering the scalp of a German soldier while scrubbing the blood from his seat in the tank. As war-movie cliches go, the onscreen spew is off-putting yet effective (Tom Hanks did it when he landed on Normandy Beach in “Saving Private Ryan”), the tough-guy equivalent of watching a neophyte take his first smoke onscreen. The poster boy for S.L.A. Marshall’s infamous statistic, estimated in his book “Men Against Fire,” that 75% of American troops in World War II never pulled the trigger for the purpose of killing, Norman has serious reservations about handling the machine gun he’s assigned. But he grows up fast as tough-love Wardaddy treats the kid like his own “war son.”
It’s either that or risk letting the incompetent new team member get everyone in the crew killed, which is just the over-simplistic dynamic Ayer exploits for the remainder of the film. There’s even a poignant if somewhat protracted interlude featuring “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” star Anamaria Marinca and younger beauty Alicia von Rittberg (“Barbara”), in which Pitt’s character enables the incredulous Norman to lose his virginity: “She’s a good, clean girl. If you don’t take her in that bedroom, I will.”
It was cigar-chomping World War II vet Samuel Fuller who practiced the philosophy that the first shot and last shot of each of his films was the most important. The same could be true of “Fury,” which opens and closes with corpse-strewn battlefields, which bookend the film with haunting evidence of the aftermath of war. Generally speaking, “Fury” looks less like recent war movies — with their modern, handheld camerawork and overall emphasis on immersion — than the more classically framed studio pics of an earlier era, where careful attention has been paid to meticulous compositions. The same goes for Steven Price’s score, which offers variations on a single three-note motif, poignant when appropriate, but also easily expandable into a full-blown military theme as needed.
Though it’s the action scenes that thrill, Ayer makes a point of balancing them with the quiet stretches between skirmishes, acknowledging that boredom — punctuated by a certain giddy tension — characterized much of the time soldiers spent at war. One could seldom anticipate when or where the enemy might strike, but when they did, the transformation from safety to survival mode was instant and entire. That makes for several heart-clutching sequences, including one that narrows Wardaddy’s tank column down to just one as they face off against a superior German Tiger tank, using the Fury’s speed and agility to defeat their armor-piercing rival. (The production shot with actual Sherman and Tiger tanks from World War II, along with a reconstructed interior whose removable walls did little to diminish the claustrophobia of the tight space.)
In another standoff, the tank column advances on a treeline at dusk. The scene looks like something out of “Star Wars” as the opposing sides exchange what looks like green and red laser fire, though the appearance and sound are both true to Ayer’s research: The glowing bullet trails are tracers, which allowed gunners to see where they were shooting — or not, in the case of the trigger-shy Norman.
As in “End of Watch” (in which one character miraculously recovers from a near-fatal shooting), Ayer allows himself to play God here, deciding the fates of his characters for emotional and dramatic impact, even if none should logically survive the assault. Would a team of five men with a half-disabled tank really dig in their heels and fight a platoon of Germans nearly 300 strong? This choice is the most “Hollywood” element in a film that is constantly shifting between disturbing, realistic details (a burning man who shoots himself to escape the pain, or the German “cowards” hanged by the SS from street poles) and the stilted, sometimes even hammy liberties needed to make its point.
Ayer’s seemingly contradictory approach can be heard in nearly every line: On one hand, he goes out of his way to capture authentic-sounding slang, encouraging the actors to use accents that aren’t always intelligible amid the hyper-attuned (and occasionally deafening) sound mix. On the other, there can be no mistake that this is dialogue, not natural speech, for they express themselves in terse, trailer-quotable soundbites that tend to remind us that we’re dealing with a collection of stereotypes, of which Bernthal’s redneck is the least convincing, though none ever seems more than skin-deep. If their sacrifice is meant to be memorable, we must first believe them to be men: Ironically, it’s the baby of the group, Norman, who emerges “Fury’s” most full-fledged character.