“Ideals are peaceful, history is violent,” battle-hardened sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier warns a weak-willed recruit in David Ayer’s rampaging tank epic, Fury. He’s not kidding, too. Ever since Steven Spielberg rewrote the rule book with Saving Private Ryan, gritty realism has been the de facto style for depicting the horrors of war in cinema – one Tarantino-style spaghetti-western aside.
Yet nothing that has been before can adequately prepare you for the visceral shocks Ayer serves up here, opening his film with an enemy soldier being thrown from his horse and pierced through the skull with bloody relish, and never letting up from there on in.
Ayer’s aim with Fury is to relentlessly scrape away any jingoist notions of heroism viewers may have of war by capturing the dehumanising carnage the allied troops have to endure as they make one last desperate and determined push across war-torn Berlin in 1945.
The final slog to victory is unbearably grim, taking in a rolling collection of charred battlefields, children strung up for “cowardice”, bodies crushed into dirt by marching squaddies, and many other haunting images that further heighten the sense of despair.
Recalling Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot in its confined setting and heavy tone, Ayer centres the action deep within the dark, unforgiving belly of a Sherman tank – nicknamed Fury. The End of Watch-director drops us straight into the rotten heart of combat with Fury’s breathlessly tense battle sequences evoking a sweaty and desperate atmosphere that is so palpably claustrophobic it will often leave you fighting for air.
We’re forced to bare witness to this living nightmare through the eyes of rookie recruit Norm Ellison (Lerman), a pencil-pushing desk clerk who is dragged into the conflict to replace a recently killed gunner aboard Fury.
Norman’s arc is reminiscent of Ayer’s corrupt-cop drama Training Day as he comes under the charge of Brad Pitt’s embittered war veteran, Wardaddy. A seasoned fighter who has already dragged his crew across North Africa and France, Wardaddy sets about transforming his newbie gunner into the soulless killer he’ll need to become in order to survive by subjecting Norman to a rigorous cycle of physical abuse and ritual humiliation. One shocking scene in particular sees Pitt’s character shove a pistol into Norman’s hand and force him to execute a German prisoner of war as part of a harrowing rite of passage.
As much as it’s about real and unsettling violence, though, Fury is often at its most powerful and affecting when it takes respite from all the fighting to develop its two main characters. A crucial sequence finds Wardaddy and Norman taking a break in the home of two German women only for their fellow tank operatives – ‘Bible’ (LaBeouf), ‘Gordo’ (Peña) and Grady (Bernthal) – to spoil the moment with their ignoble desires.
It’s a pivotal scene in the evolution of Lerman’s character – Norman will never be the same again after leaving the town – and yet it is still soaked in the same uneasy tension as the numerous battle scenes.
It’s really only in the final third that Fury falters as Ayer erroneously resorts to the usual genre tropes he spent much of the film subverting in order to create an optimistic ending. The idea of Wardaddy and his troops preparing to go out in a hail of bullets and glory sits awkwardly with the story’s anti-heroism themes, but the climax is no less satisfying for it as Ayer delivers one final no-holds-barred showdown.
Fury may not carry the dramatic weight of some of the more ‘Oscar-worthy’ war films around, but in terms of viscerally harrowing realism there really is nothing better.
Run time: 134 mins; Genre: War Drama; Released: 22 October 2014
Director: David Ayer; Screenwriter: David Ayer;
Starring: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Jon Bernthal, Michael Peña
Click here to watch the trailer Fury