Wanted: One lemon tree

Which one is Bart Simpson?

Which one is Bart Simpson?

Rated 3.0

In a 1995 episode of The Simpsons entitled “Lemon of Troy,” Bart prepares to lead a group of Springfield children behind enemy lines to retrieve their precious lemon tree. Before they leave, Bart assigns their roles: “I’m the leader, Milhouse is my loyal sidekick, Nelson’s the tough guy, Martin’s the smart guy, and Todd’s the quiet religious guy who ends up going crazy.” The weary WWII tank crew at the center of writer-director David Ayer’s Fury is similarly programmed—there’s a leader (Brad Pitt), his loyal sidekick (Michael Pena), a tough guy (Jon Bernthal), a smart religious guy (Shia LaBeouf), and a quiet guy who ends up going crazy (Logan Lerman). All that’s missing is the lemon tree.

Of course, the familiar nature of the characters is appropriate for a film that spends 134 minutes retrofitting beat-up WWII-era movie clichés for the age of CGI spectacle and body horror. The film’s blood type is hard-R negative, and Ayer allows the stuff to gush indiscriminately. Powerful scenes of wartime desperation—conscripted German children, or an old woman harvesting dead horse meat—culminate in action sequences that play out like Medal of Honor missions, right down to the cartoon squeals of the butchered and fried Nazi soldiers.

Brad Pitt, very good in a role not far removed from his career high-point in Inglourious Basterds, plays Don “Wardaddy” Collier, a battle-scarred tank commander with an evangelical belief in the righteousness of Nazi-killing. Pitt’s Don has echoes of the Tom Hanks character in Saving Private Ryan, shaky hand and mercurial back story and all, but he also has the immersive, holy war bloodlust of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. Don is fluent in German, and possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of their culture, but he only uses it to more efficiently and sadistically kill Nazis. In the heat of battle, he screams in German, “Send me more pigs to kill!” Rest assured that the Nazis oblige.

The film opens in Germany in April 1945, which the film portrays as a period of scorched-earth “fanatical resistance,” with the advancing Allied soldiers besieged by ambushes. Pitt commands a tank that is technologically inferior to the German models, and the opening scene is set in the gory, fog-shrouded aftermath of a hellacious battle that his vehicle somehow survived. After savagely dispatching with a Nazi soldier and his symbolic white horse, Pitt leads his team back to the deplorable squalor of base camp. There they are assigned a replacement for a comrade who died in the previous battle, a gunner who left nothing behind but a few tchotchkes on the dash and a large chunk of his face on the seat.

Logan Lerman plays Norman, the fresh-faced, gawky, inexperienced, pants-wetting newbie, and while the fresh-faced, gawky, inexperienced, pants-wetting newbie is a convention of war films going back to the silent era, this stock character was never written as more of an apple-cheeked stumblebum. It’s as though Andy Hardy were suddenly transported from a barn dance onto Omaha Beach. Norman is assigned to Don’s hardened crew, yet he is totally ignorant of basic military protocol and insists that his true calling is in the secretarial pool. “I trained to type 60 words per minute!” What boot camp was this?

Lerman is saddled with a ridiculous and unplayable character, but Ayer gets sturdy performances from the rest of his supporting players, including the oft-maligned LeBeouf as Bible, “the religious guy.” The actors are given little more to play than one-dimensional outlines, but they manage to create an intense group dynamic that pays off during a dysfunctional “family” dinner scene, and an otherwise silly action finale.

Fury is a problematic film, but it’s also undeniably entertaining, with some ghostly images that are too often obliterated by cannon fire. The film is also a technical masterwork of production design, editing, costumes, cinematography, special effects, and especially sound design. One of the many brilliant touches is the way that the thump and crack of gunfire echoes constantly in the background, a persistent reminder to the tank crew that death is everywhere. But it’s a backwards compliment to single out the sound in Fury, because the rest of the film signifies nothing.