“Fury” takes place in the waning days of World War II, but as a film it’s stuck somewhere between the present and the past — between the gung-ho platitudes of every WWII movie before 1996’s “Saving Private Ryan” and the chaos and carnage of every WWII movie since. As Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier, the battle-scarred leader of a tank squad pushing through Germany toward Berlin, Brad Pitt creates a warrior who is terse, sometimes noble, more often brutal. The movie as a whole tries to balance the standard veneration of the Greatest Generation with an acknowledgment that what war does to men is the opposite of great. You could call it “Glorious Bastards” and you wouldn’t be far off.
Above all, writer-director David Ayer wants to push our faces in the violent actuality of combat and its aftermath. “Wait’ll you see it — what a man can do to another man,” one of the tank crew says to its newest bow gunner, Private Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman). Since Ellison has just scraped a portion of his predecessor’s face off the inside of the tank, he needs little convincing.
In the old days of “Pork Chop Hill” and other dog-face classics, Ellison would be called The Kid. Eight weeks into the Army, he’s the audience’s surrogate, our fellow naïf among men who’ve been fighting from one end of each day to the other since the war’s early engagements in the African desert. The other members of the crew are the tank’s scripture-quoting gunner, Corporal Boyd Swan (Shia LeBeouf, quietly effective); its country-boy assistant gunner, Private Grady Travis (Jon Bernthal); and its Hispanic driver, Technician Trini Garcia (Michael Peña). In the old movies, they’d be called Holy Joe, Tex, and Mex, with Pitt their grizzled Sgt. Rock.
But the old movies were less interested in showing the barbarism of war, the death that can come out of nowhere at any instant, and what invading armies — even the good ones — do to a country. “Fury” gives us terrible glimpses: tank treads rolling over a body pancaked into the mud, an elderly woman cutting meat off a dead horse, a woman in a wedding dress among a crowd of refugees.
The battle violence is similarly harrowing, and its effect on the men in the Sherman tank with “FURY” painted crudely on its barrel is unsettling and uncertain. Ayer, who has dealt with charismatic bad boys before — he wrote the script for “Training Day” and directed the sharp police drama “End of Watch” — makes the paternal “Wardaddy” into a figure both monstrous and upstanding. In one scene, he shoots a captured enemy officer in the back. A few scenes later, he’s protecting two German women from being assaulted by his own men.
The latter sequence is the agonizing midpoint of “Fury” and, along with a pitched fight between four American tanks and one superior German Tiger, it’s the film’s dramatic highlight. The two women are an aunt (Anamaria Marinca, star of the great Romanian movie “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”) and her teenage niece (Alicia Von Rittberg, “Barbara”), and they know exactly how precarious their situation is when the Americans arrive in town. Ayer lets the sergeant be the moral arbiter, urging the virginal Ellison into a bedroom with the girl while keeping the drooling, devolved Travis from a potential orgy of rape and murder. In the curious calculus of “Fury,” women are the spoils of war but only if you give them respect and fresh eggs.
Pitt gives a fine, believably bleak performance, despite the slowly tightening noose of heroism around his neck. When the young Ellison protests that shooting the unarmed German is wrong and his “Wardaddy” responds, “We’re not here for right or wrong. We’re here to kill him,” “Fury” approaches the cauterizing honesty of a Sam Fuller war film. (By contrast, when Collier opines, “Ideals are peaceful — history is violent,” that’s the sound of Ayer breathing hot air.)
“Fury” tries to have it both ways, with a climactic siege of the lone tank by an entire Nazi battalion that wipes away the nihilism of the preceding two hours in a burst of patriotic duty and Steven Price’s hollow, rousing soundtrack music. It’s not that you don’t believe it. It’s that the earlier scenes, showcasing the sheer grind of armed conflict and the way it can scrape civilization off the best of men (and forget about the worst), are more convincing. “Fury” wants to lead us to a fresh consideration of “the good war” while simultaneously celebrating the old bromides and clichés. No wonder it shoots itself in the tank.