'Fury' (R)

In the World War II drama Fury, Brad Pitt plays Sgt. Don Collier, a flinty, no-nonsense commander of a Sherman tank with a four-man crew who has been assigned a difficult mission inside German territory. Seeing Pitt in military fatigues and short-cropped hair, you can’t help but think of his performance in Inglourious Basterds, where he played an equally ruthless but more amiable, even funny, leader.

That character is missed. Collier, like the rest of his men, has survived too many horrors to have anything left but a sardonic sense of humor. When one of the crew is killed, he is replaced by the baby-faced Norman (Logan Lerman), who barely knows how to shoot a machine gun and is constantly hazed by his new mates (Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña and Jon Bernthal).

Early in the film — in one of its best scenes — Collier forces Norman to execute a German instead of taking him prisoner, because he knows this kid needs to be able to kill if he has any hopes of surviving. The odds are not good.

Writer-director David Ayer, who previously specialized in crime dramas that often focused on police corruption (Training Day, Harsh Times), shoots Fury in a straightforward manner, almost as if he were making it in the 1940s.

The battles are ferocious — the Germans’ Tiger tanks are far more powerful and harder to take out than the American machines — and even if the characters in the film are all stock types, Fury reminds you of the insane courage these men displayed by going to fight an enemy that had the tactical advantage on practically every side (Bernthal’s prickly hillbilly is still annoying, though).

As a testament to the valor of the military, Fury achieves its mission. But as entertainment, it doesn’t work as well. There’s a long interlude in which the men have a meal at the home of three women, who feed and care for them. There’s a sexual tension underlying the scene — these men are not in their right minds; they are brutes — but the way Ayer lets the scene play out manages to be tender and realistic at the same time.

Then it’s boom-boom time again, leading to a climax reminiscent of one of those Star Trek movies in which the U.S.S. Enterprise is crippled, surrounded and outnumbered by the enemy. But Star Trek was sci-fi; Fury aims for history, and the contrived resolution shows a timidity by Ayer that is uncharacteristic of his previous work. Still, the action sequences, which use actual vintage tanks and little CGI, are pretty extraordinary and, at times, incredibly gruesome. War is hell. That’s entertainment, folks.

Cast: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal.

Writer-director: David Ayer.

A Columbia Pictures release: Running time: 134 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, heavy gore. Playing at area theaters.