The relentless barrage of heavy-handedness in David Ayer's World War II tank drama "Fury" begins immediately. A lone horseman approaches on the grim horizon of a foggy, corpse-strewn battlefield. Out of the muck leaps a man who pulls the rider down and savagely bludgeons him in the eye.
Ayer, a veteran of the Navy and L.A. crime films like "Training Day" and "End of Watch," wants to make it clear from the start that he's making a film about the barbaric brutality of war. Setting it in April 1945 in the waning days of WWII in Europe only furthers the point that all war — even the supposedly "good" ones — is hell.
Into Germany rumbles Sgt. Don Collier (Brad Pitt) and his M4 Sherman tank. With "Fury" blazed on its gun and a claustrophobic warren of bickering soldiers within, the tank is a killing machine, as are its hardened inhabitants. The cast — Shia LaBeouf as the gunner, Jon Bernthal as the loader, Michael Pena as the driver — work to show the darkness that has settled behind their eyes after years of war.
Good and bad — the usual battle lines of most WWII tales — isn't the dichotomy of "Fury." A far cry from his debonair "Inglourious Basterds" Nazi-hunter, Pitt's commander is a tough, even cruel boss (and the eye-stabber of the opening). "We're not here for right and wrong," says Pitt. "We're here to kill."
Such bleak, unnatural mantras are occasionally spouted by Collier and his crew. The tank, a kind of a roaming lone wolf after its platoon is decimated, is joined by a new recruit, a fresh-faced, ill-prepared typist named Norman (Logan Lerman).
The air of the near-colorless "Fury" is relentlessly fetid, the screen filled with mud. The romance of "the greatest generation" has been drained away, leaving only the harsh realities of war and perhaps a more honest view of what it does to men.
But "Fury" is by no means a realistic movie. It's an "unflinching" account of war — "unflinching," in quotes, because every moment of the film is composed to grind your face into the muck and be proud of itself for doing so.
Since this grisly verisimilitude is the point of "Fury," it ought to have considered drawing from real events for its story or central battle. Instead, it culminates in a lengthy, against-the-odds fight that has less in connection with WWII than the movie "300."
The balance of the movie feels off, suggesting Ayer, who wrote and directed, may have intended a much longer cut of the film. As it is, it's composed of a handful of large chunks: the initiation of Norman; an open-field showdown with a German Tiger tank; a long interlude of improvised domestic life in a German village; and the final battle (easily a quarter of the movie). The drama of the pure-Hollywood end is weakened because the stories of the men haven't been articulated.
The same issue plagues village scene, in which Collier, with Norman in tow, tries to create a respite of order. In a bombed-out town, he orchestrates a dinner with a German mother (Anamaria Marinca) and her attractive daughter (Alicia von Rittberg). The scene's fragility is the movie's best moment, where every gesture is heightened by the women's fear.
But the scene's grace, too, is hackneyed. Norman plays the piano, and their less couth tank-mates cause an over-the-top interruption. Pitt's strong presence can do only so much for the forces of pretentiousness swarming around him.
For a better WWII tank thriller, look to Zoltan Korda's "Sahara," with Humphry Bogart in the Libyan sands. Made during the war in 1943, it may have been propaganda, but its aim was truer than the pseudo realism of "Fury."
"Fury," a Columbia Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "strong sequences of war violence, some grisly images and language." Running time: 134 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
MPAA rating definition for R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP