This bit of heroics isn’t “what I wanted to do,” Brad Pitt’s battle-scarred sergeant, and a hundred movie sergeants before him, growl. “But it’s what we’re doing.”
“Fury” is the sort of World War II movie Hollywood used to churn out four or five times a year – a gritty, grunt’s-eye- view of combat. The grit is bloodier and R-rated now, as is the combat jargon. Firefights have a visceral, video-game immediacy. It’s still a B-movie.
But even a B-movie stuffed with clichés can be gripping. “Fury,” written and directed by David “Training Day” Ayer, takes us into the claustrophobic confines of a tank and makes a fine star vehicle for Pitt, if not the most original march down World War II lane.
The sergeant’s “war name” is Wardaddy, and we meet him as his battle-weary crew delivers a dead comrade to base. In the last days of the war, Germany is lashing out with a suicidal fatalism – fanatical SS troops, old men, boys and girls are being sacrificed in one last Nazi blood purge.
“Fury,” the name of their tank, is sole survivor of their last mission. Now they’ve been given a replacement (Logan Lerman) and a new task. The opening credits remind us that U.S. armor was inferior to German tanks, so every mission could be their last.
But the cynical crew still mutters “Best job I ever had” when the going gets tough. Boyd (Shia Labeouf) is a drawling, Bible-quoting gunner. Grady (Jon Bernthal) is loader and mechanic, an ugly brute and bully. Gordo (Michael Pena) – nicknamed for the Spanish word for “fat” – is the driver. They proceed to haze and abuse the new guy (Lerman), whose eight weeks of training were meant to make him an Army clerk. He is, as such characters always are in such films, idealistic.
“Ideals are peaceful,” the philosopher sergeant intones, with Pitt hitting the line as if it’s for posterity. “History is violent.”
In “Training Day/Saving Private Ryan” fashion, the new guy has to see the carnage – tanks churning corpses to goo, heads exploding and the occasional summary execution of the enemy. Wardaddy is a bit of a fanatic about killing SS fanatics.
“Fury” gives Pitt a story arc that makes him harder and crueler than anybody in this crew, characteristics he has kept alive since the North African campaign. But we get hints there are layers he’s hiding.
The cast around him plays mostly stock characters, but vivid ones.
Ayer’s command of history is more solid than clumsier efforts like “Inglourious Basterds” or “U-571.” The tank appears to be a relatively rare Pershing. The utterly spent combat reserve pool is straight out of WWII history. Guys went into combat and stayed to the finish. Green kids were all that was left for replacements.
A Tarantino touch? The crew forces itself on German women who feed them as Gordo recollects the horrors of the post-D-Day “Falaise Pocket,” when Germans and their pack animals were slaughtered in the hundreds of thousands.
Ayer hasn’t topped “Saving Private Ryan,” even though he recycles chunks of it. “Fury” is more like Sam Fuller’s personal war memoir, “The Big Red One” – straightforward, less poetic, an action film with a hint of humanity and history that is fast receding from view. It’s good, not great, and it’s not Ayer’s fault that the rarer these B-movies become, the more we expect from them.
“FURY,” starring Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena and Jon Bernthal. Written and directed by David Ayer. A Columbia release. Rated R for strong sequences of war violence, some grisly images, and language throughout. Running time: 2:14