David Ayer is one of the weirdest and unpredictable directors working in Hollywood, almost impossible to pin down. That’s not entirely a compliment. Look at his filmography and you’ll find one that’s all over the place. His screenwriting credit for Training Day will always be the first thing listed in his obituary, but then you have some films that are outright insane like Sabotage and Street Kings, one movie that’s terrific in End of Watch and another that’s an awkward middle stage between those two extremes in Harsh Times. Where does Fury fall on this scale? In true Ayer fashion, it distances itself from all his other films. Again, I’m not sure this is a compliment, but in a strange way I’m glad it’s not that simple with Ayer.
I’m all for unflinchingly portraying the horrors of war and the murky morality of the men forced to fight it, but at certain points of the film it becomes just as ethically murky as its characters. I guess there is value in creating a film that you can’t distance yourself from, the problem is that the explosive machismo it’s reveling in starts to feel more praised rather than examined. One scene uncomfortably tries to pass off quasi-consensual rape as romance. There is a high amount of death in this film, but it begins to feel more sensationalized than actually realized.
It feels unfair to compare any WWII film to Saving Private Ryan, but I’ve got to in order to provide some context as to why I was uncomfortable with this film at certain points. Saving Private Ryan opens up with one of the most unrelentingly bloody sequences ever put to film, but it’s appropriately so, never gratuitous. You feel like you’re actually there on the ground witnessing the horror. In Fury it’s like that but through the lense of a director without a similar sense of responsibility, who instead wants to crank everything to 11. You imagine him behind the camera shouting “More, more, more!”. It feels more schlocky than realistically horrifying at certain parts. At a certain point it’s gratuity for gratuity’s sake, as if Ayer is trying to outdo himself on the gore front. 30-40% of the shots feel like they’re put there to remind you that war sucks in case you forgot. What begins as gasps of shock turn to eye-rolls. At a few points I found myself wondering if Ayer just honestly believed that nobody had considered the fact that war is awful before him.
Thankfully Ayer has assembled an expert ensemble to help the film rise above its issues. Brad Pitt is a magnetic presence and that’s all he really has to do to make his role as Don “Wardaddy” Collier effective, his dialogue is sparse and appropriately so – he’s been with this crew for years, there’s a shorthand in how he interacts with them. There’s an entire history behind his eyes, and it makes each act of ferocity and kindness that much more interesting.
Logan Lerman is an actor that is really coming into his own. He’s been slowly growing into heavier fare starting with The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and he adopts the arc of Norman Ellison well, a young typist sent to the front with no experience whose innocence dies in battle. He just looks so naturally innocent on his own, like a sheep among these wolves of battle. His arc is one that’s present in nearly every war movie, but Lerman still grounds it tremendously showcasing great range of truly felt emotion. 4 years ago Lerman was an actor that seemed interchangeable with any other young white actor. But now, I’m really excited to see where he heads.
Shia LaBeouf, Jon Bernthal and Michael Peña fill the roles of the 3 other members of the crew, and although they are rooted in stereotypes – LaBeouf as the bible-thumping Boyd “Bible” Swan, Bernthal as the unhinged beast Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis and Peña as the token minority Trini “Gordo” Garcia – the trio manage to flesh them out impressively. There’s a real lived in chemistry among the tank crew, and the ensemble plays off each other well.
I don’t want it to sound like I dislike Ayer, as far as Hollywood journeymen go he’s in the more interesting camp as he goes all in on his films. I just don’t think he’s entirely suited for the material. There is growth in his film, consider the quiet but tense opening with sparse editing that’s interrupted by extreme violence. It’s a wonderful introduction into this hell. Also consider just how real and immediate his WWII Germany felt. And to his credit he crafts the most impressive action sequences of his career by far, resulting in an exhilarating 3rd act that has the audience truly hooked on a “will they make it or not” knife’s edge. This film has some glaring issues, but also some very impressive upsides. It’s got its problems, but something tells me this film may reward a 2nd viewing.