‘Fury’ as Subtle as, Well, a Tank

Two stars (out of four)
R (strong sequences of war violence, some grisly images, language)
134 minutes

There is nothing subtle about war, so it follows that there’s not much subtlety to be found in war movies.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but in the case of writer-director David Ayer’s “Fury,” the film is so desperate to shock and awe, watching it feels like being barreled over by something big, heavy and unwieldy. Like a tank, for instance.

I know that’s a cheap and easy metaphor for a movie about an American tank crew barreling their way suicidally through Nazi Germany in the last, grim days of World War II. Nevertheless, it’s an apt comparison for a film that prizes force over finesse and sprawling, simplistic themes and imagery over convincing relationships and emotion.

That’s not to say a tank movie isn’t a brilliant idea. It’s gotta be one of the most novel war story angles Hollywood has come up with in a long time. And when Ayer focuses his pen and his lens on what it’s like to be inside one of those gigantic, creaking hunks of metal, rolling its way inexorably through a nightmare landscape of smoke, carnage and death, “Fury” is fascinating.

Unfortunately, the director’s focus too often roams to the kind of wartime sequences we’ve seen before in more compelling visions of World War II, including “Saving Private Ryan,” “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific.”

“Fury” takes its name from its most imposing star — the one that isn’t married to Angelina Jolie — a battered bruiser of a Sherman tank, manned by the seasoned, war-weary Sgt. Don Collier (Brad Pitt) and his faithful crew.

The movie makes a point of telling us that the average tank crew only survived for about six weeks. Collier’s gang has bucked that trend, managing to stay alive and stick together for four years.

The sergeant’s goal is to keep it that way, not an easy task considering his new crew member, Norman (Logan Lerman), is a baby-faced clerk who has no combat experience and has never seen the inside of a tank.

“Fury” may appear to be an ensemble film, but don’t let that fool you. This is Pitt’s show. It’s almost as if the actor is reprising a less comical version of his character from “Inglourious Basterds,” the Nat-zi-hating Lt. Aldo Raine.

Collier schools young Norman in the ways of war and utters the movie’s choicest monologues. “Ideals are peaceful. History is violent,” he informs his scared-stiff, stubbornly pacifist protege in a jaded Southern drawl.

Don’t get me wrong. Pitt is a fine actor. His hair buzzed into a crew cut, his face scrawled with scars, he deploys his signature blend of toughness and torment like a weapon. If only the other members of the cast were given a chance to show their stuff. Instead, they’re made to embody war movie stereotypes.

Shia LaBeouf plays Boyd, the religious one who quotes scripture and refrains from partaking of the spoils of war. Michael Pena, who was excellent in Ayer’s “End of Watch,” provides the comic relief as driver Gordo. Jon Bernthal, so memorable on “The Walking Dead,” is assigned the role of Fury’s resident redneck, the brutish Grady.

None of these characters are particularly likable, so Lerman is there to soften them up as the GOOD guy. In case, we don’t get that he’s the GOOD guy, one of the actors is kind enough to point it out to us. But even though he is the GOOD guy, Ayer isn’t content until Norman is killing Nazis just as gleefully as his battle-hardened comrades.

Lest we feel any sympathy for those dagnabbit Nazis, the Germans are depicted as goose-stepping ghouls who chant so operatically and in perfect synchronization, they may as well be the Orc army marching out of Mordor in “The Lord of the Rings.

Ayer’s last film, the cop drama “End of Watch,” was equally grandiose, but soared on the strength of the relationship between a pair of LAPD officers played by Pena and Jake Gyllenhaal. If only the interactions in “Fury” were as solid, but truth is we know very little about the characters or what connects them.

The director resorts to stirring up phony conflict between these brothers in arms in a bizarre, deeply uncomfortable scene in which Collier and Norman hold hostage/seduce/befriend — it’s disturbingly never clear — a pair of German women after securing an enemy town.

On a purely technical level, “Fury” fares better. Ayer obviously took great pains to ensure the film’s authenticity and delivers several suspenseful, horrific scenes of combat, illustrating both the power and limitations of the World War II-era tank.

The movie’s finale ramps up the heroism to almost ridiculous extremes.

Funny thing is, the heroics of everyday life inside the tanks, with their claustrophobia, tedium, close quarters and forced intimacies, probably would have proved more profound.

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