World War II has been over for nearly 70 years, yet filmmakers are still mining that unspeakable exercise in mass death for material. When done well, as with the two HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific” and in Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated “Saving Private Ryan,” the result is often a telling, tragic look at the fruitless absurdity of war. When done poorly, well … the results can be everything from pure propaganda – 1968’s “The Green Berets,” say – to simple violence porn – the prime example being any of Sylvester Stallone’s “Rambo” movies.
Somewhere in the mix sits “Fury,” writer-director David Ayer’s story of an American tank crew struggling to survive the final few weeks of World War II’s European campaign. Let’s not get into how the war’s major tank action was the Battle of Kursk, which took place in the summer of 1943 and involved not Americans but Russians facing the invading Germans, because that’s a whole other movie – one that Hollywood isn’t likely to waste money making.
Ayer’s film is set in April, 1945, barely a month before Germany’s fall. Hitler has called for total resistance, which means that the crew of “Fury” – the name given to the American tank commanded by SSgt. Collier (Brad Pitt) – isn’t going to enjoy an easy stroll into Berlin. In fact, Collier’s tank is the sole survivor of a recent action that killed one of its five-man crew. The replacement gunner they receive is a clerk-typist named Norman (Logan Lerman), whom Collier has to quickly indoctrinate into the ways of war.
That includes both the crimes of war – forcing him to shoot an unarmed German prisoner – and the spoils of war: ordering him to have sex with a young German woman. Both actions are certainly controversial, but they certainly shouldn’t come as a surprise: Ayer obliterates any notion of nobility in the movie’s opening scene when Collier brutally stabs a German soldier through the eye socket.
But brutality isn’t the problem with “Fury.” Not the sight of hanged children, of tanks rolling over pancaked corpses, of soldiers being immolated like grilled steaks, of stray rounds causing heads to explode like piñatas – not even the ruthless attitudes of Collier and his crew that have been honed by too much exposure to horrors that would give John Wayne nightmares.
No, the problem is that Ayer presents all this with no sense of larger purpose. The acting is competent – with Shia LeBeouf standing out – but the characters are mostly cliché. Worse, Ayer’s narrative arc features action scenes, followed by a long sequence in which Collier and Norman develop a sort of bond, then a close filled with even more action. That bond never fully develops, much of the action seems more convenient than actually believable, and Ayer leaves us with an ending that is more about visual flair than anything significantly meaningful.
War, of course, tends to lose meaning for those caught up in its barbarism. That fact obliges filmmakers such as Ayer to work that much harder to provide it.