The great comic-book artist Jack Kirby drew the early 1960s issues of Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos - about a squad of Army Rangers blasting through Nazi-overrun Europe - with his characters' trademark features: square-jawed grimaces, rippling muscles, a jagged ferocity in the eyes.
Filmmaker David Ayer has, intentionally or not, delivered the live-action counterparts to Kirby's ink-and-pencil warriors in Fury.
A jolting, close-in combat movie that follows a Sherman tank crew through Germany in the final, bloody months of World War II, it stars Brad Pitt, scars on his face, nostrils wide to inhale the battlefield stench, as Don "Wardaddy" Collier, this Fury's sergeant. The men hunkered down in the bowels of his rolling armored machine are Boyd Swan (Shia LaBeouf), the Bible-quoting gunner; Trini Garcia (Michael Peña), the driver; Grady Travis (Jon Bernthal), a madman and the loader of the 76mm gun, and the newbie Norman (Logan Lerman), an Army typist shunted to the front lines in the Allies' desperate lurch toward victory.
Fury presents an unrelentingly violent, visceral depiction of war, which is perhaps as it should be. Bayonets in the eye, bullets in the back, limbs blown apart, corpses of humans and horses splayed across muddy, incinerated terrain. Ayer brought a similar you-are-there intensity to his 2012 cops-on-patrol drama, End of Watch (also with Peña).
Ayer lays Fury out in three distinct acts. There is the on-the-job training of Norman, culminating with the execution of an SS officer. The long, unpleasant interlude in a just-liberated village, where Sgt. Collier takes Norman up into an apartment, ordering the two quaking German women there to prepare a meal, and then prepare the bedroom. And a final mythic stand - the team's tank stuck, immobile, at a crossroad, with a platoon of Nazis heading straight its way.
Although it's pretty much impossible to avoid the cliches and constructs of a war movie, Ayer pushes his actors to find the adrenalized fear, and fire, in their guts. Pitt brings "Wardaddy" alive in ways that put his cartoonish Inglourious Basterds Army lieutenant to shame. Lerman's rabbity dread is palpable.
It wouldn't be right to call Fury entertaining, and in its narrow focus (as narrow as the view from the tank's periscope), the film doesn't offer a broader take on the horrors of war - other than to put those horrors right in front of us, in plain view.
Fury *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by David Ayer. With Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña. Distributed by Sony Pictures.
Running time: 2 hours, 14 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, adult themes).
Playing at: area theaters.