The guy with a weathered snapshot of his girl waiting back home; the outer-borough New Yawker, pining for Coney Island dogs and Brooklyn Dodgers games; the ethnic soldier (could be a first-gen European immigrant, could be Hispanic) who-ah talks-ah with an accent; the tough guy who takes pride in chalk-striping his kills; the holy roller; the country bumpkin who used to hunt squirrels with his pappy; the combat-hardened, seen-it-all commander; the fresh-faced fresh-meat kid who’s scared out of his wits. We’ve seen these WWII-movie dogface grunts hundreds of times, from Battleground to eternity, the cinematic shorthand for all of the disparate bunches of our boys over there thrown together to fight those damned Fritzes.
Filmmaker David Ayer knows we know these guys and their hill-humping ilk from countless hours spent perusing the late, late show. So in putting together his platoon of tank operators for Fury, the director’s entry into the war-flick genre, he’s happy to play off our collective knowledge of the canon. There’s Wardaddy (Brad Pitt), the natural-born leader of men who’s calling the shots on this two-ton juggernaut. There’s Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal of The Walking Dead), a Southern swamp-hick who’s one “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” away from telling his mates they sure have a purty mouth. There’s Bible (Shia LaBeouf, for once playing the sole voice of reason), who, well, likes the Bible. There’s Gordo (Michael Peña), a Mexican soldier. Soak in these Greatest Generation types, the film tells us. Now watch as they all turn into cracked psychotics who’ll knife a Nazi in the eye without provocation or a second thought. “Ideals are peaceful,” Pitt’s scarred officer says. “History is violent.”
War is not simply hell in Ayer’s vision of the fighting men of the 2nd Armored Division it’s a live-action Bosch painting of the Tenth Circle of Hell, the sort of filthy muck-flecked nightmare where your best buddy’s face lies partially splattered on the wall and no one emerges untainted. (If nothing else, the film’s gothic Grand Guignol aesthetic proves that Ayer should be a lock to adapt Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian for the screen.) He’s not out to give viewers movie-war but war-war, a shock-and-awe campaign that’s all guts, no glory. These are men who aren’t just hardened by such carnage but enlivened by the notion of payback, and who’ve grown used to the sight of what artillery can do to a human body. By the end of the movie’s two-hour-plus running time, you’ll know all too well what such things look like, and the Omen-esque soundtrack only confirms that Ayer isn’t trying to make a combat picture so much as a horror film.
Fury’s closest equivalent to the “final girl” would be Norman (Logan Lerman), the green soldier-cum-audience surrogate who’s thrust into this world of kill-or-be-killed survivalism. Overwhelmed by the death all around him, the kid is unable to hack it when push comes to trigger-pulling; when Wardaddy eventually shows Norman the nuts and bolts of Nazi-dispatching by making him shoot a POW in the back, it’s a rape scene by another name. Norman’s also the character who becomes a vehicle for showcasing Wardaddy’s saintly attributes, through their afternoon spent with two German women in an apartment, and for highlighting their fellow soldiers’ savagery soon after they discover said fraüleins. Mostly, though, he’s the eyes through which we see the literally colorful firefights between Sherman tanks with their red and green tracer bullets, the innocence lost among the rubble and the joys of male bonding, which is the main preoccupation of the movie’s creator. Ayer has always gravitated towards groups of he-men doing he-manly things: LAPD boys in blue (End of Watch, 12), DEA special agents (Sabotage, 14), submarine crews (2000’s U-571, for which he wrote the screenplay). For all the innards spread around the set design and squashed under tank tread, the scenes of the guys squawking about the “best job we’ve ever had” are the ones where Ayer’s heart lies.
In the end, after the guys go once more unto the breach and take on an SS brigade in their best outnumbered-but-never-outgunned suicide mission, you realize that was the real point of Fury all along: the ultimate steroidal band-of-bromance. Soldiers have always forged deep friendships in foxholes, and World War II stories have often relied on that closeness as a way of expressing not just the nobility of fighting but the cost as well. This oddly modern take on the men-in-war melodrama turns a lot of that joking, joshing and feelings-sharing into something that almost feels like a subversion of the old-school Dirty Dozen style epic, especially once they break out the booze and do everything but beat drums in the woods before going brutishly into the night. It’s a movie that puts a scene of a man crying in secret near its beginning and features men weeping together by the end. Forget the meat-and-potatoes war flick smothered in Caro-syrup gravy, or the weaker attempts at portraying the claustrophobia of living inside a movable metal death-trap. At its best, the movie works as a love letter to camaraderie-by-combat. Why pine for your girl back home when you can die next to some of the best buds a guy could ever hope to make?