“We are in the business of killing Nazis. And cousin, business is booming. So said Brad Pitt (in the person of Lieutenant Aldo Raine) in Quentin Tarantino “Inglorious Basterds.” Five years later, and nearly 70 years after World War II, Mr. Pitt returns to combat in ‘Fury,’ playing the leader of an American tank crew as it battles its way through Germany in the spring of 1945. His character, Sgt. Don Collier (nicknamed Wardaddy), is a weary, less talkative man than Raine, and the film’s director, David Ayer, has a more linear and literal sensibility than Mr. Tarantino, but the Nazi murder case remains thriving.
And why wouldn’t it be? The world is a complicated place, and war, as the subject of novels and films, often presents a tangle of moral ambiguity and a haze of confusion. But while the Allied struggle against Germany can sometimes raise thorny questions about ends and means, it also retains an ethical clarity, an uprightness, which explains at least in part its enduring appeal to commercial filmmakers and their audiences. Nazis are about the only real-world characters who consistently deserve the fate reserved, in other genres, for zombies, aliens, and orcs.
The first time we see Mr. Pitt in “Fury,” he jumps out of his tank, attacks a German officer, and stabs him in the eye. Then he calms the dead man’s beautiful white horse and sets him free on the battlefield. Later, he will order the summary execution of an SS officer who has just surrendered, after confirming that the man was responsible for the deaths of children.
These murders are staged with an air of grim necessity, and Mr. Ayer, a badass screenwriter (“Training Day”) and action director (“Sabotage,” “End of Watch”) venturing into ambitious genre territory, has a way of filming violence that’s both intense and down-to-earth. Like many other post-“Saving Private Ryan” combat films, this one emphasizes the chaotic immediacy of battle, claiming its authenticity on the unwavering depiction of bloodshed: heads being vaporized by mortar shells. The limbs are severed by automatic rifle bursts. Human flesh is charred by flames and torn apart by shrapnel.
But within that gore-splattered, superficially nihilistic carapace lies an old-school peloton image, a sensitive, beautifully acted story of coerced male bonding. Wardaddy – an archetypal squad leader, tough and calm, with sad eyes that bear witness to the terrible things he has seen – is in charge of four other men, and the long hours they spend together, in constant danger and in the limited space of the float, result in an atmosphere of raw and unpretentious intimacy.
The men under him are the sort of motley, semi-diverse assortment that typically anchors this genre. Gordo (Michael Peña), who is Mexican-American, and Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal), from somewhere in the southern United States, disguise their loyalty to each other under profane insults and occasional outbursts. of sectarianism. Bible (an excellent Shiite LaBeouf), though he occasionally blurts out an obscenity or two, is more adept at quoting scripture and warning his comrades of the wages of sin. There’s a tenderness between him and Wardaddy that’s one of the film’s most subtle and intriguing touches.
Pvt. Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), who has yet to earn a nickname, serves as both the smooth-faced rookie – scared to death and appalled by the callousness of his comrades – and the egghead designated by the crew. Transferred from the typing pool, he reads Hemingway and plays classical piano, and is clearly more sensitive than the others, who are cut from coarser cloth and have been battered even more by grueling campaigns in North Africa, Italy and in Normandy.
Now, with the war in its final stages, they face a vicious and desperate enemy. In their retreat to Berlin, the Nazis began conscripting children and murdering uncooperative parents. As his army crumbles on the eastern and western fronts, Hitler has ordered a suicidal last stand of utter destruction. The Germans still had plenty of tanks, however, many of them superior to those of the Americans, and although the momentum was on the Allied side, victory still seemed a long way off.
“Fury,” which takes its title from the name painted on the barrel of the tank’s big gun, is less of an epic than a series of tense, focused episodes. It’s about the grind of tactics rather than the sweeping of strategy, the fight for local objectives rather than ultimate goals. The battle scenes are staged with direct, ground-level virtuosity, and with a welcome concern for spatial and visual coherence. When the tank has to cross a stretch of muddy terrain, you feel every jolt and swerve. And there’s a lot of muddy ground to cover.
There is also a brief respite, during which Mr. Ayer pauses to consider the humanity of the soldiers and the extent to which it has been tested and damaged by war. Wardaddy and Norman discover two German women (Anamaria Marinca and Alicia von Rittberg) hiding in an apartment in a newly captured town, and the encounter is both awkward and terrifying, a dysfunctional family dinner in the middle of a nightmare. It points to a conflict bigger and deeper than war itself – the struggle, between and within individuals, between savagery and civilization, decency and raw need.
And then it’s time to move on and get back to business at hand.
“Fury” is rated R (under 17s must be accompanied by a parent or adult guardian). Massacre and swearing.