FURY  * *

Starring Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, John Bernthal and Michael Pena. Written and directed by David Ayer.

War is hell, in case you haven’t heard. Writer-director David Ayer’s Fury makes a stronger case than most, devoting a goodly portion of its running time to shockingly casual acts of brutality and dehumanization the likes of which we just don’t see these days in mainstream studio pictures. It’s bracing, well-observed and genuinely upsetting – until all of the sudden it isn’t anymore.

Set in the final days of World War II, Fury follows a tight-knit tank crew lumbering through Germany in the Sherman from which the film takes its title. They started out together in this tin can three years ago all the way back in Africa, and now communicate primarily through grunts and inside jokes. Wardaddy (Brad Pitt), Bible (Shia LeBeouf), Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal) and Gordo (Michael Pena) speak the private language of guys who’ve been smelling each other’s farts for far too long and have seen more together than they care to remember.

Their delicate ecosystem is knocked for a loop upon the arrival of green new gunner Norman (Logan Lerman), a mealy-mouthed typist whose first job is mopping up the splattered face of his predecessor. The shell-shocked crew doesn’t make a show of mourning their fallen compatriot, though occasionally Pitt’s Wardaddy finds a quiet corner where he can go lose his shit in private.

Norman’s hazing is crude but effective. After the kid balks at strafing dead German bodies (“just to be sure”) Pitt forces him to shoot an unarmed POW in the back. Fury doesn’t have time for any patriotic niceties; in fact I’m hard pressed to recall seeing a single American flag anywhere in the movie. War is simply a matter of killing as many of the other guys as you can, because they’d do the same to you. End of history lesson.

Attempting to strip the varnish from The Greatest Generation mystique, Ayer’s film is awash in ghastly, throwaway details — an elderly woman in a bombed-out town carving meat from a dead horse by the side of the road, the thousand-yard stares of malnourished soldiers, and buckets upon buckets of blood. (This movie also looks like it smells really bad.) Adopting the rambling, anecdotal structure of Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One, Fury works best when it’s a shapeless chronicle of surreal, day-to-day horrors.

The film’s high point is not a battle, but instead a rare moment of downtime during which Pitt just wants to have a normal goddamned breakfast.

It was during that remarkable sequence that I became convinced Fury was headed somewhere exciting and new. Alas, it still turns out to be a film by David Ayer. The swaggering bad boy known for his profane, chest-thumpingly masculine and usually stupid urban thrillers (he wrote Training Day before directing swill like Harsh Times, End of Watch and this year’s scummy Golan & Globus throwback, Sabotage) Ayer always seems to be getting off on his characters’ transgressions. He’s like Peckinpah without the self-loathing, or the poetry.

Sure enough, after an exceedingly promising first hour and change, Fury devolves into a fetid pile of self-aggrandizing macho horseshit – wholeheartedly embracing every dumbass blaze-of-glory cliché the film had thus far studiously avoided. It starts to feel like a different movie altogether, as Pitt’s brusque, unknowable Wardaddy suddenly becomes all twinkly and avuncular. A rank sentimentality sets in, with the jagged loops of Steven Price’s atonal score replaced by soaringly heroic crescendos.

Ayer has been trying to get a remake of The Wild Bunch — the greatest of all films — off the ground for years, and he mimics that picture’s immortal climax here to such an absurd extent I hope that he’s finally gotten this terrible idea out of his system. By the time he’s carefully arranging Brad Pitt in William Holden poses behind a .50 caliber machine gun, I was struck by how reverently someone can pay homage to an old movie without seeming to understand it at all.

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