The new film from David Ayer, the writer of "Training Day" and the writer-director of "End of Watch," plays not entirely unlike one of those urban cop dramas transplanted to WWII's German front, circa April 1945. That's a good thing for "Fury," a throwback combat movie that offers tanks for the memories, along with vivid performances.
Playing the apprehensive (okay, terrified) innocent this time is Logan Lerman ("The Perks of Being a Wallflower"), while the seasoned guide comes in the form of a weathered but still buff Brad Pitt. Pvt. Norman Ellison (Lerman) has been trained only to type sixty words a minute, but when he's tasked with replacing the assistant driver of Sgt. Don "Wardaddy" Collier's tank, Norman finds himself thrown into the deep end of a pool of unspeakable horrors. Pitt's Collier oversees a unit that also comprises saved evangelist Boyd "Bible" Swan (Shia LaBeouf), wise-cracking Trini "Gordo" Garcia (Michael Peña) and nuttily unpredictable Grady "Coon-Ass" Travis (Jon Bernthal).
Collier's tank unit takes part in the advance through the European Theatre, during which the Allied forces are "outgunned and outmanned" by German tank units. No ordinary sergeant, Collier successfully applies his relatively limited machine guns and tank cannons to his task, while frustratedly acclimating Norman to what Collier frames as the necessary evils of war. Successfully, that is, until the now-familiar Ayer trope of a hardcore extended climax that is guaranteed not to end well for all concerned. In its graphic details, "Fury" proves brutally violent: a hellish vision realized through dynamic photography, editing and production design as well as highly effective, raw-nerve turns from the five actors playing the tank unit.
Despite his recent troubles, LaBeouf again proves capable of conveying emotions that ooze like open wounds (that's a compliment), while Peña and Bernthal do strong variations on types they've played before. The picture truly belongs to Lerman, who maintains a reactive spontaneity as the all-important audience surrogate, and Pitt, intelligently delivering the kind of crucial star performance that, once upon a time, would've been the job of Humphrey Bogart or John Wayne (though those guys would never have to play the perverse domestic scene with two beleaguered German women that serves as "Fury"'s unusual centerpiece).
Collier's struggles with "combat stress" (PTSD) and his dueling impulses for sympathy and fury embody the film's moral ambiguity, though Ayer only occasionally allows audiences to forget they're watching a decidedly anti-war film with echoes of our perpetually problematic "War on Terror."
"We're not here for right or wrong," Collier instructs Norman. "We're here to kill them."
Rated R for strong sequences of war violence, some grisly images, and language throughout. Two hours, 14 minutes.