Granted, I haven't seen Birdman yet, but it's hard to imagine any movie this year featuring a more kick-ass title character than the one in writer/director David Ayer's Fury. A battered but still indomitable Sherman tank plowing through Nazi Germany at the tail end of World War II - its name imprinted, twice, on the tank's cannon - Fury is both an amazing destructive force and a desperately needed safe haven for its five-man platoon. Our heroic tank also boasts more personality than any human on-screen, but in the case of this particular film, that's relatively easy to forgive.
Ayer's action drama opens with Brad Pitt's squad leader Wardaddy leaping from atop Fury onto a passing Nazi on horseback, knocking the German to the ground and stabbing him, in grisly close-up, in the eye. As with numerous WWII works from Saving Private Ryan onward, this early burst of ultra-violence is the filmmaker's way of signaling, "This ain't your grandpa's service picture." Yet for too much of Fury's length, viscerally accurate and horrific re-creations of battle scenes and bloodshed are all the picture is. There's really no plot; Wardaddy leads a company of ethnically and temperamentally diverse soldiers on some sort of vague rescue mission, and we watch as the men bicker, bond, and splatter the landscape with Nazi entrails. (There's also a misguided, seemingly endless interlude in which the team's token virgin - Logan Lerman's timid newbie Norman - gets laid right before all hell breaks loose. You can feel the director going for an edgy "calm before the storm" vibe à la the French-plantation scene in Coppola's Apocalypse Now Redux, but Ayer never reaches Coppola's level of artistry.) What's more damaging than the movie's lack of narrative, though, is its lack of subtlety.
At the end of that opening sequence, right after stabbing the Nazi, Wardaddy takes a few seconds to soothe his victim's horse - a gorgeous white steed who's just two wings shy of being Pegasus (or the TriStar logo) - and release it into the dusky landscape. Wardaddy's ultimate nobility in the face of wartime atrocity is consequently made too obvious from the start, but as Fury progresses, we realize that nuance isn't ever going to be Ayer's strong suit here. (As if his direction of March's lamentable Arnold Schwarzenneger vehicle Sabotage weren't suggestion enough.) Wardaddy's and Norman's tankmates - Shia LaBeouf's Scripture-quoting Bible, Michael Peña's Mexican-American Gordo, Jon Bernthal's nearly incomprehensible Southerner Coon-Ass - are the thinly drawn, combat-flick stereotypes you expect. And while no one likely expected Ayer to create richly textured Nazis, I was hoping their dialogue would at least be a step above the occasional outbursts of "This is our land!" and "Finish them!"
For all of its grimness and verisimilitude, Fury has been designed as a cineplex entertainment for a mass audience, and at the screening I attended, it appeared to succeed as one. The ample, largely senior crowd collectively gasped at the unforeseen deaths and laughed at even the merest hints of jokes. (Perhaps in hopes of breaking the tension, they even laughed when it wasn't appropriate, as when the formerly prim and panic-stricken Norman began screaming "F--- you!" at the Nazis while decimating them with gunfire. Or maybe, given the clichéd inevitability of Norman's character arc, the crowd's reaction was appropriate.) But Ayer's pandering techniques and forced melodrama keep the film from ever achieving true greatness, and make awkward the scenes in which you sense the director truly trying to bypass genre methods for a more Malick-ian view of war: Norman hiding among a patch of bushes, the breeze disguising the sound of approaching Nazi troops; the fatalistic, emotionally loaded looks that pass between Wardaddy and Bible as the apparent end draws near.
Yet if the movie is never great - or rather, never great as a whole - the professionalism and dynamism of Fury's presentation, and the strength of its actors, makes "good" a fair-enough compromise. The sound and production design are exquisite throughout, and the effects are frequently startling, despite the early distraction of seeing tanks attack one another with lasers. (Visually accurate or not, watching the tanks' tracer ammunition shoot across the screen in blasts of electric green and red was like watching a Star Wars set in 1940s Europe.) And working with sketchily defined figures, the cast provides the film with a gravitas that's barely evident in the script. LaBeouf, somewhat shockingly, gives the most haunted, impressive performance, and Pitt has an especially beautiful, heartbreaking early moment in which Wardaddy sizes up Lerman's new arrival and his unmistakable expression reads, "This poor kid's gonna die with me." Even though Fury may be wanting in some pretty big ways, it's strong and serious, and only rarely feels too long for its 130-minute running length. It also has that astonishing tank. Hell may hath no, but the movie's audience, at least, should be happy to have Fury.