Opening Friday

Ideals are peaceful; history is violent,” declares Don Collier (Brad Pitt), the battle-hardened commander of the five-soldier crew manning the titular Sherman tank in FURY. This maxim saturates writer-director David Ayer’s bleaker-than-bleak World War II film, set amid a hellish European Theatre replete with heroism but precious little humanity.

As the film opens, a German military officer on horseback surveys a battlefield littered with smoldering Shermans, underscoring the tank’s contradictory role as both sanctuary and tomb. Suddenly, Collier leaps from atop his tank, dismounting the officer and stabbing him through the eye.

As in Inglourious Basterds, Pitt portrays a soldier who likes “killing Nat-zees.” But the parallels end there. Nicknamed “Wardaddy,” Collier is a patriarch to his devoted tank crew, now part of the Allied incursion into Germany in April 1945.

“Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña) is the Mexican driver and loader “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) hails from backwater Arkansas. Bible-thumping gunner Boyd Swan (Shia LaBeouf, who gives the best performance) blasts away at the enemy, then prays over a dying German soldier. Despite some broad characterizationsparticularly Bernthal’s cartoonish redneck loutwe embrace this quintet’s bond as we share their close armored quarters.

Collier is unflappable and uncompromising, a leader whose imperviousness and blinkered morality recalls Tom Berenger’s Sgt. Barnes in Platoon. When Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a clerk-typist with no combat experience, is assigned to replace a KIA hull machine gunner, Collier exorcises Norman’s reluctance to kill by holding him down and forcing him to shoot an unarmed German POW in the back.

From its washed-out palette to its palpable sense of grimy dread, Fury is a raw, realistic portrait of the perils of tank warefare on the grisly European front. The high point of Ayer’s bracing action sequences is a nail-biting tank battle between a trio of Shermans and an actual German Tigerthe only operable Tiger tank still in existence, borrowed from the Bovington Tank Museumthat shows why it took 50,000 Shermans to defeat Germany’s 1,500 Tigers during the war.

The film is like a WWII edition of Apocalypse Now, as the remnants of a ravaged tank platoon descend into a heart of darkness. Corpses fill ruts in muddy roads; crewmen set ablaze inside tanks shoot themselves rather than burn alive; the SS hangs youngsters as warnings to German townsfolk unwilling to ship off their children to fight.

Indeed, one of Fury‘s most provocative scenes resembles Apocalypse Now‘s infamous deleted dinner scene. After liberating a German village, American soldiers carouse with drink and questionably willing local woman. Collier and Norman retire to a flat occupied by a mother and her comely daughter. Sexual menace permeates the scene, but what Collier ultimately desires is normalcy: a shave, a newspaper over eggs and coffee around the dinner table. The sequence reveals Collier’s psyche, though it shirks a full analysis of the thorny ethics it conspicuously introduces.

That interlude precedes a brutal, protracted last stand befitting The Wild Bunch. This heroic denouement is capped by one of the film’s few moments of mercy, supplied by a member of the SS, ironically enough. Fury is full of ideals such as courage and loyalty, but they are enveloped by the bloody, foreboding fog of war.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Heavy metal.”