The tank with the word “FURY” painted on the turret is almost a character unto itself in the movie of the same name. With Brad Pitt at the helm and a ragtag, fiercely loyal crew burrowed inside, this tank just keeps on going and going and going — and even when she breaks down, she’s got plenty of fight left in her.
With strong echoes of “Saving Private Ryan” and a few stock characters out of dozens of other war movies, “Fury” also has an almost “Rocky”-like arc, with the stakes infinitely higher, of course. We get round after round of horrific, bloody battles, interspersed with brief scenes of macho dialogue and no small measure of Scripture-quoting.
David Ayer, author of “Training Day” and writer-director of “End of Watch,” two of the most violent movies about Los Angeles cops of the last decade-plus, is the writer and director of “Fury,” and he really, REALLY knows how to blow things up, whether it’s buildings or tanks or soldiers.
Brad Pitt, sporting a haircut I’m not sure was popular in 1945, trim and fit at 50 but looking suitably grizzled and hard-bitten, is Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier, and that nickname tells you where his head is. Don has killed Germans in Africa and in France and in Belgium, and “now I’m killing Germans in Germany,” he says matter-of-factly.
It’s April 1945 and Don is commanding a Sherman tank with a small crew on a near-suicide mission that will take them deep behind enemy lines. Don’s crew includes the hard-drinking, trash-talking Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena); Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), who quotes the Bible and says grace before meals, but doesn’t exactly comport himself like a churchgoing man. and Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal), a savage Southerner who’s well on his way to becoming a certified sociopath. They’ve exacted so much carnage and they’ve seen so many comrades die, their eyes are glazed and they all seem on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Even their steely-eyed commander, who barks orders and always seems to be in charge, has to slip away from time to time to fall to his knees and succumb to the horror of it all.
These men aren’t suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. They’re dealing with that syndrome while still immersed in what Hitler called a “total war,” in which he enlisted every last man, woman and a child to make one last desperate stand in their homeland.
The newest crew member on the Fury is Logan Lerman’s Norman Ellison, the prototypical clerk/typist who’s been in the Army all of eight weeks, has zero battle experience and is crying, vomiting and saying he wants to go home about three hours after joining the squad.
Lerman is terrific in a clichéd role, and LeBeouf and Pena turn in strong performances as well. Bernthal’s character is another matter. “Coon-Ass” Travis is such an over-the-top brute, such a wild-eyed maniac, that you wonder why Don hasn’t had the guy declared a Section 8 and sent him home.
Pitt is at the top of his game, playing a man who has forgotten whatever he used to be and has wholly embraced his role in this war. (“Best job I ever had,” is the mantra for Don and his crew.) He becomes a father figure to Norman, but it’s as much for his own preservation as it is to get Norman up to speed as quickly as possible.
In between all of Ayers’ well-choreographed, fog-of-war battle sequences (which feature some of the more shocking kills in recent memory), there’s an extended set piece where Don and Norman discover a German woman and her young cousin hiding in an apartment. The women are sure they’re going to be assaulted, perhaps even killed. Instead, we get a surprisingly delicate dance in which Norman attempts to restore some semblance of civility in midst of all the scattered corpses and burning buildings. It’s the one scene where “Fury” rises above its solid but standard war movie status and approaches something really special.
Even as Don and his crew are cursing out the Nazis and screaming for them to die as they mow them down, Ayers doesn’t turn the opposition into monsters. There’s even a key moment when a German soldier, given the chance to perform an act of grace, does just that.
The tragedy of the carnage we see in “Fury” is that by April 1945, both sides knew who was going to win, but as Don puts it, “a whole lot of people are going to have to die” before the war would finally end.
“Why won’t [the Germans] just quit?” asks one of Don’s fellow tank commanders.
“Would you?” says Don.
That’s one of the many hells of war. You often have to keep on fighting even when the battle has been won.
Columbia Pictures presents a film written and directed by David Ayer. Running time: 133 minutes. Rated R (for strong sequences of war violence, some grisly images, and language throughout). Opens Friday at local theaters.