More than any other contemporary filmmaker, David Ayer is the epitome of a street warrior. He is a brawler, a literal head banger, the kind of guy you want at your back when you run into that alley ready to fight. All’s fair in love and war — well, I’m not sure Ayer believes in love in the first place, and he knows there’s nothing fair about fighting.
Think I’m overstating the case?
As a writer, Ayer began patrolling the mean streets back in 2001 with The Fast and the Furious, which might not have been as hardcore right from jump street, but he followed that up with Training Day, featuring a seedy twist on the righteousness that is Denzel Washington’s bread and butter. While heavily plot-driven, this ride-along with a corrupt cop announced a fascination for Ayer. He continued his journey down the pathway of lawlessness and disorder with Dark Blue and the translation that brought 1970s TV series S.W.A.T. to the big screen for a large-scale fantasy of bad guys instituting a form of martial law with the few good guys staging an against-all-odds resistance movement.
An urge to seize control — possibly inspired by his dark-tinged antiheroes — seemingly overtook Ayer, leading him to helm Harsh Times, with Christian Bale as a rough-and-tumble vet from South Central Los Angeles who is eager to apply his military training on the streets. From there, he directed Street Kings with Keanu Reeves, Chris Pine and Forest Whitaker — another examination of police corruption.
Although the best summation of Ayer’s gritty urban myths might be the 2012 release End of Watch with Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña as a pair of young patrol officers grinding it out day in and day out on the streets of L.A.
The story is captured documentary style, from the perspectives of the dash camera in the patrol car and through the lens of one of the officers who, while taking a course in night school, decides to surreptitiously shoot his own footage of their hours on the job. The handheld feel strips away the polish and grants us the in-the-moment sensations of both the boredom and the adrenaline rush.
Ayer retreated a bit, back to the macho glorification of the hot and heavy action with Sabotage, released earlier this year, with its elite shock and awe team of DEA agents who may or may not be on the take. But it appears now that this move wasn’t as much of a misstep as it seemed at first glance because Ayer immediately follows it up with Fury, a true departure from the urban battleground scenarios he has built his reputation on, instead saddling us up with an American tank crew in Nazi Germany in April of 1945.
This is not the first time Ayer has gone to war, though. His first script — U-571 back in 2000 — went deep under, aboard a German submarine with American soldiers seeking to steal the sub’s Enigma code machinery. But what Ayer has explored countless times in his look at the war on crime gets transferred to the European front as WWII nears its end, and he poses the argument that the Great War, fought by the Greatest Generation, might not have been as noble as all of the accounts would have us believe.
Initially, Wardaddy (Brad Pitt), the tank commander, is seen brutally killing a German officer on horseback after a guerilla-style ambush that seems anachronistically out of place. Later though, while breaking in a new recruit (Logan Lerman), Wardaddy relays his war experiences of killing Germans of various fronts, ending with the current position where he is “killing Germans in Germany.” Wardaddy and Fury are all about bringing the killing to the enemy’s front door, bursting through the frame and spilling more blood in the living room. In other words, Ayer is in his element.
And in Pitt he has an able and eager accomplice. Working much like Washington did in Training Day, Pitt gets to play against the type we would expect here. Wardaddy is not John Wayne or Gary Cooper, the noble all-American standard tough guys. His morality has jagged and dangerous edges, and he must sometimes fight against his darker urges or he’ll end up like the others in his tank. Boyd Swan (Shia LaBeouf) may quote the Bible, “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña) may drive a tank better than Andretti races a car and Grady Travis (Jon Bernthal) may lock and load artillery like nobody else, but they have surrendered to the despair and hardening of the heart that comes from endless killing. Pitt hangs on by digging his nails into the flesh.
Fury wanders so far into the heart of darkness that it nearly blunts its own impact. But it is pure Ayer, a pure brawler to the end. Grade: B (tt stern-enzi)