David Ayer’s gruesome World War II flick Fury aims to do for the Greatest Generation what his previous films have done for the LAPD and DEA, painting the crew of an M4 Sherman tank as cruel and crooked soldiers on the front line of a war against an evil greater than themselves. In Ayer Land, good is a fragile and irrelevant thing; what matters is camaraderie and the struggle of bad against evil. “Ideals are peaceful, history is violent,” says the tank’s commander, Wardaddy (Brad Pitt). It’s April 1945, and he and his crew of Neanderthals—Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal), Gordo (Michael Peña), and Bible (Shia LaBeouf)—are tearing through the muddy countryside of Germany, slitting throats, killing prisoners, and forcing their way into the homes of local women.
It’s all very Peckinpah—or at least it could be, if Ayer had any sense of poetry. (The closest he gets here is the recurring motif of a white horse, wandering the battlefield.) Ayer is devoted to the very ’70s idea that a violent film has to be about the efficacy of violence, but he always comes to same relativist conclusion; his world is black and gray, which isn’t all that different from black and white. When it all comes down to it, “History is violent” isn’t much of a foundation for a movie—unless, of course, a filmmaker’s primary goal is to provide cheap shocks, which Fury delivers in spades: blown-off heads; corpses flattened into the mud; a soldier, engulfed in flames, shooting himself in the head; Wardaddy’s crew killing child soldiers and then driving down a country road strung with the corpses of civilians; men blown open by grenades; wounded soldiers yawping out Wilhelm Screams as they get crushed under the treads of a tank.
Borrowing a page from his own script for Training Day, Ayer confines the action to a 24-hour period, during which virginal, Hemingway-reading Army typist Norman (Logan Lerman) finds himself abruptly transferred into Wardaddy’s crew and gets to learn firsthand about what terrible people real men are. (His first task: wiping his predecessor’s brains off the interior of the tank using a bucket of water and a rag.) Skirmish by skirmish, Norman is initiated into the cult of the tank, which revolves around Wardaddy and his Plexiglas-handled M1917 revolvers. Their mantra is “Best job I ever had”; by the end of the movie, one gets the sense Norman believes it, but not why.
One can’t help but admire Ayer’s commitment to showing the ugliness of the most mythologized of all wars, just as one can’t help feeling disappointed that Ayer treats the ugliness as an end in and of itself. Seeing American soldiers execute prisoners is about as edifying as seeing a cop take bribes. At least the gore is convincing.