Anger is what turns a pacifist into a die-hard soldier, at least that’s the suggestion from writer/director David Ayer. He casts Brad Pitt as Wardaddy, a US tank commander pushing through Germany during the Second World War, in Fury, a seriously crushing, irresistible force of a movie.
Logan Lerman, fresh-faced star of the Percy Jackson movies, is Wardaddy’s opposite – a quietly compelling lad, simply named Norman. It’s a breakthrough performance for “the kid”, who thinks it must be some mistake that he’s been called up to replace a gunner aboard the tank dubbed “Fury”. His first job is to clean up the remains of his predecessor, a job for which he is too squeamish, and in subsequent scenes of brutal conflict, he also demonstrates a reluctance to pull the trigger.
Rounding out the crew are a po-faced Shia LaBeouf as the bible-bashing Boyd, Latino loudmouth Michael Pena and an impressively repulsive Jon Bernthal, who would be lower down the food chain if he didn’t like killing so much. All the clichés are present and correct – sir, yes sir – but each actor stands out in their own way and together, in the belly of the machine, they are even stronger.
That has a lot to do with Ayer whose forte in many a ride-around cop drama, from Training Day (which he scripted) to End of Watch, is examining the behaviour of men brought together in close quarters and under high pressure – and it doesn’t get more intense than in the theatre of war.
Ayer turns the heat up to maximum by setting the action in April 1945, when the Nazis are essentially beaten and as a result, even more ruthless. For the last men standing, it’s all about pride and the breakdown of order in the ranks translates to scenes where even wide-open spaces are loaded with menace. There are disturbing scenes, too, of local women and children hanged in the streets, labelled as cowards for refusing to defend the Reich.
While he doesn’t linger on the carnage, Ayer doesn’t pull his punches when it comes to showing death and dehumanisation up close, on both sides of the conflict. The wheels of Fury don’t move around the bodies that are strewn across the mud but ride straight over them, and likewise, Wardaddy doesn’t give Norman too much room to wallow in grief.
Fortunately, Ayer does indulge his actors. Pitt is on blistering form, framed in two ways; as the tower of strength he must be for his men and underneath that, a sickened, weary soul. Naturally, Lerman begins as wide-eyed and idealistic then, inevitably, has this beaten out of him. However, you might not expect Wardaddy to do some of the slapping around and even worse acts that defy the Geneva Convention.
Bullying is part of the banter and the schooling for survival, as is often the case in Ayer’s films, but he really hits home by stripping away the bravado to reveal true colours. Anger, yes, and beyond that, there is fear. It seems obvious but each man is stalked by different demons in different ways and those tensions are memorably brought to the fore away from the battlefield, particularly in a dinner table sequence at a house in a seemingly deserted town. Wardaddy longs to recall what it was like to be civilised but this proves to be mission impossible.
At the crunch, Ayer does fall back on Hollywood conventions (and don’t expect to see any Brits en route to Berlin), but as bombastic as the endgame is, it also raises pertinent questions about the coping mechanisms and the initial impulse that keeps men ploughing onward into mortal danger. The adrenaline rush suggested by the title is only half of the story and the rest of it, played out with heart-pounding urgency, is what separates the men from the beasts.