They don't make 'em like Fury any more. Writer/director David Ayer has crafted an old-fashioned war film in the tradition of The Dirty Dozen, The Guns of Navarone, and The Longest Day. But instead of John Wayne leading the 101st Airborne into bloodless battle, Ayer has Brad Pitt as Don "Wardaddy" Collier leading the hardened crew of the Sherman tank Fury through mud, vomit, and viscera.
The film opens in April 1945. The war is almost over, and even though Wardaddy has fought through North Africa to Normandy to Belgium and finally into Germany, he has only now lost his first crewman. Greenhorn Norman Ellison's (Logan Lerman) first job is to clean his predecessor's guts off of his seat, which tells you everything you need to know about the film's tone. Norman is not initially popular with his new crew, earning the particular ire of Grady "Coon-Ass" Travis (Jon Bernthal), a tanker who has embraced the war's horrors. Trini "Gordo" Garcia (Michael Peña) is the hard drinking Mexican driver, and Boyd "Bible" Swan (an unrecognizable Shia LaBeouf) is the tank's fundamentalist first officer. There's a war on, so their get to know you time is short, and they are thrust back into battle immediately.
Norman, who acts as the audience's eyes and ears throughout the film, grows up in a hurry through a series of increasingly brutal battle scenes. There's no quick cutting, handheld camera designed to disorient. Ayer builds and releases tension the hard way, with careful sequences that efficiently lay out who is doing what to whom.
Someone smarter than me said that Brad Pitt is a character actor trapped in the body of a leading man, but Fury may be a breakthrough for him — if one of the world's most successful actors can be said to have a breakthrough. Wardaddy is clearly based on his character from Inglourious Basterds, but he's not playing a Quentin Tarantino cartoon. As he calmly leads his tank through the carnage, he looks more comfortable in his skin than he ever has.
The ostensible theme of Fury is that war makes monsters of men, but it's a prime example of Françios Truffaut's observation that it is impossible to make an anti-war film, because movies make fighting seem like so much fun. You won't see many shots as beautifully composed as Wardaddy, silhouetted by flames, fighting off legions of SS. But the film bogs down in an interminable second act set in a captured German village where the boys have to actually interact with (gasp) women. It's fascinating to see how the archetype of the American soldier has evolved in the post-Full Metal Jacket era. Would you ever see John Wayne shoot a prisoner in cold blood? Would American soldiers gang rape a German woman in The Longest Day? But this is the 21st century, and maybe directors aren't interested in, or audiences won't buy, us as the unvarnished good guy, even when we're fighting the Nazis. Maybe that's why they don't make 'em like they used to.