Did you know war is hell? Fury spends a lot of time reminding you of that as it follows the crew of a single tank called Fury in the waning days of World War II. Brad Pitt, as Sergeant Don "Wardaddy" Collier, leads his men through apocalyptic scenes of devastation, with body parts from soldiers on both sides of the conflict strewn everywhere. The first time we meet Collier, he tackles a Nazi off the back of a white horse and stabs him in the eye until he dies. Then he frees the horse—did I mention that it's white?—and watches it run away across the butchering fields. That scene is a microcosm of Fury as a whole: unflinching in its brutality while still kinda reveling in the coolness of the aforementioned brutality, pausing only to occasionally reflect on a bit of over-obvious symbolism.
Don't get me wrong: Fury is a well-made movie. The action is intense—I found myself white-knuckling the armrest of my seat during an impeccably choreographed tank battle. Pitt gives his typical solid performance, although without any opportunity to relax, Collier comes across as a little wooden. Even Shia LaBeouf, as a religious soldier nicknamed Bible, does good, albeit overly mumbly, work. And the film hangs impressively on Logan Lerman's performance as Norman, the fresh young replacement for a member of Fury's team whose face was blown, literally. Times are tough for the military, and so Norman hasn't been to tank school; in fact, he was recruited from the secretarial pool. Lerman smartly doesn't lean on the innocence too hard, and his canny performance of a character that could easily have been obnoxious is a good complement to Pitt's jaded surety.
Collier enjoys barking orders at Norman, especially when Norman fails to demonstrate the stomach for killing. He introduces the young recruit to the tank with a terse "That's home. Do as you're told. Don't get too close to anyone." Collier's sparse directions begin to sound like a philosophy class taught by an impatient Sylvester Stallone: "Ideals are peaceful. History is violent," followed, a few seconds later, with "Do what I tell you." A central scene set in a German woman's apartment turns into a tense moment of peace as Collier and Norman get a sense of each other as men. It's fun to watch these characters interact, even if their arcs are a little too obvious.
So what's the problem? There is a bit of a sense that writer/director David Ayer wants to have it both ways with Fury: He wants to assure us that war is hell, but he also can't resist slipping in a super-kewl squicky moment where a tank tread bursts a Nazi's skull like Gallagher in his prime. Collier is simultaneously a haunted man who's been hollowed out by war, and a stoic, badass leader. Part of this schizoid sensation comes from Steven Price's score, which at times sounds like ghostly, distant voices—are they singing or moaning in pain or warning us to go back before it's too late?—but also occasionally cues up the action beats like a dumb-and-proud-of-it John Wayne war picture.
Perhaps I'm expecting too much of Fury's Oscar-friendly pedigree and its mostly excellent performances. I have no doubt that the Call of Duty crowd will love this movie, with its sudden bursts of violence and its ferocious demonstrations of hot man-on-man platonic love, but Fury seems to aspire to something more. There's nothing as disappointing as when someone is smart enough to know they should question their situation, but too dumb to know what those questions should be.