Whether under the stress of combat or from crime-fighting, how men do (or do not) demonstrate Hemingway’s mantra of “grace under pressure” is the theme of much of his work.
It began with 2001’s “Training Day,” for which we all gave too much credit to its director Antoine Fuqua. Then slowly Ayer made you understand this was no fluke as he penned the underrated submarine thriller “U-571.”
Since then he has written “The Fast and the Furious,” “S.W.A.T.,” “Dark Blue” and after making his directorial debut with his screenplay “Harsh Times” directed a second film in 2012, “End of Watch,” a realistic and memorable account of policing in L.A.’s dicier areas.
With “Fury,” starring Brad Pitt, where you spend 24 dramatic, fateful hours with a tank unit during the final push into Nazi Germany, Ayers occupies a terrain belonging most notably to Howard Hawks where one may observe worn-out men as they endure rugged, violent combat.
“Fury” is a solid though not spectacular addition to the canon of Hollywood war movies. What makes it stand out in today’s cinema is its post-revisionism, a strong antidote to Tarantino’s version of combat certainly, and its arrival at a time when the nation has wearied of its many unnecessary wars in the new century.
Consequently, I’m not sure how audience will receive a movie so lacking in cynicism and rooted in hyper realism, closer in tone to “Saving Private Ryan” and “We Were Soldiers” than to the sort of war movies Hollywood cranked out in the ‘40s and ‘50s.
No doubt it was made because of Brad Pitt and artistically he wasn’t wrong. It’s a good and strong film with fresh, unusual roles for him and a handful of actors. It deserves to be seen.
Also fresh is the focus on a tank crew in the 2nd Armored Division, sweating,bleeding and dying in almost flimsy Sherman tanks going up against Germany’s mighty Tiger tanks. Having battled from Africa to Belgium and the Netherlands, the crew finds itself in enemy territory where Hitler has declared “total war.”
So in April 1945 you join these guys as if in mid-movie. You feel like you missed the first act as everyone is already at wit’s end, weary, filthy, disheartened, yet fully aware the worst may be ahead.
Their commander, Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Pitt), barks orders and lets the men’s angry guff roll off his back. His goal is to complete their mission and lose no more men. Only they just lost their assistant driver, his blood still oozing on his seat.
Wardaddy refuses to react to this; he can’t afford to. What the command gives him as a replacement though is an absolute rookie, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), with little military training. He’s a clerk typist thrust into combat following the Battle of the Bulge when the army is short on manpower.
Not much a commander can do except make certain the boy is combat ready that day. If this means teaching him to shoot captured SS officer to turn him into a stone killer, so be it. Norman is, of course, your way into a story that has been going on for months and months.
Aboard the “Fury” — its nickname painted on the gun barrel of the tank — are gunner, and second-in-command, Boyd Swan (Shia LaBeouf); the driver, a hard-drinking Chicano Trini Gracia (“End of Watch’s” Michael Peña); and hillbilly loader Grady Travis (Jon Bernthal).
Each man becomes individualized during the movie. For instance, Swan is a killer yet also a Christian, a man of faith who can and does reconcile this with the killing in war.
The film contains one substantial interlude from the mayhem in what is easily its strongest sequence. When the Yanks capture a German town, Wardaddy and Norman, ever in tow so the commander can get him acclimated in a hurry, stumble upon an upstair flat occupied by a German woman (Anamaria Marinca) and her teenage cousin, Emma (Alicia von Rittberg).
These two terrified women are naturally at the mercy of these two enemy combatants. Wardaddy, who speaks German, tries to lessen the tension by offering food and demanding hot water for a shave. Seeing a piano and sheet music Norman sits and plays the piano — apparently typing is not his only talent.
Emma joins him in singing and the foursome sit down to a kind of meal when the rest of Wardaddy’s crew invades the apartment. The entire sequence becomes a complex meditation on the longing for normalcy in surreal and violent circumstances, a mingling of lust, terror, danger and desire.
Norman falls in love only to come to realize the wisdom of his commander’s first words to him: “Don’t get close to anyone.”
The third act involves an act of heroism, not unlike those vintage war flicks. But I think Ayer arrives at it fairly and without corniness. In a situation where actual survival is a long shot at best, a suicide mission seems perfectly okay and not any sort of grandiose statement about Yank soldiers and their valor.
Pitt is extraordinary here, even by his high standards, as he lets you see the inner struggle and mental calculations of a man who must lead by performance and not orders. He is always assessing the situation and his men’s capacity to deal with it.
Lerman (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “Noah”) has the greatest arc from devastating innocence — the kind that can get everyone killed — to furious hatred of the enemy. The young actor is very good.
LaBeouf throws over all controversy he seems to invite to his own personal life to invest in a character who manages his contradictions so he has no problem with being a killing machine.
Bernthal and Peña deliver strong performances to round out the crew while demonstrating the dangers of warfare on the soul. If they did survive, you can’t imagine how they could return to civilian life as anything but sullen or disaffected men.
Filming in English locations, “End of Watch” cinematographer Roman Vasyanov matches the photos and combat footage that came out of WWII yet achieves a muted elegance nonetheless. War is hell but that doesn’t mean hell can be well photographed.
Opens: October 17, 2104 (Columbia Pictures)
Production companies: Columbia Pictures, QED International, Le Grisbi, Crave Films
Cast: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal, Jason Isaacs, Brad William Henke, Jim Parrack, Xavier Samuel, Scott Eastwood, Kevin Vance, Anamaria Marinca, Alicia von Rittberg
Director/screenwriter: David Ayer
Producers: Bill Block, David Ayer, Ethan Smith, John Lesher
Executive producers: Brad Pitt, Sasha Shapiro, Anton Lessine, Alex Ott, Ben Waisbren
Director of photography: Roman Vasyanov
Production designer: Andrew Menzies
Music: Steven Price
Costume designer: Owen Thornton
Editors: Dody Dorn, Jay Cassidy
R rating, 134 minutes