War is violent. Did you know? Was this something that you might have guessed at, even in your most wild fantasies? Because the new World War II movie Fury seems to have run out of ideas above and beyond "war is violent", though it makes up for that by suggesting that war was really really fucking violent, and showing that violence in all the wide-eyed amazement that can possibly be scrounged up. And then filtering it through cinematography by Roman Vasyanov that runs the gamut of colors from steel blue to slate grey.

In other words: Fury is a grim, dark, extravagantly depressing piece of cinema, in which the world is divided only into that which is violent, and that which is dead. The perfect WWII movie for writer-director David Ayer, whose work to date has shown an implacable fascination with all the ways that men can damage other men. And men it very much is: Ayer's other career-spanning fascination is with the way that violent jobs - LAPD officer, DEA agent, and now soldier - offer studies in masculine behavior under pressure. And I think, from the way the movies talk and structure themselves, that the point the filmmaker thinks he's making is that all men are capable of being pushed into violent extremes by circumstances that make them compromise their moral codes, but the effect has always been, to my mind, "Ooh, look at that animalistic thug of a man who has sacrificed all the things that make him a stable human! He's so cool!"

Fury compounds that issue by making the bad guys Nazis; and what movie is possibly going amble along and be all, like, "don't kill Nazis. Killing Nazis is bad"? They're the all-time ultimate Acceptable Movie Cannon Fodder. And Fury knows this in its heart of hearts, which is why it so unpersuasively moves from a scene in the middle, where the Innocent New Kid begs and weeps and screams to be permitted not to execute a German prisoner (a moment that anyway feels less like "killing is always wrong, in wartime or otherwise", nor "killing a prisoner of war is wrong", and more like "killing would make me feel icky", but I think that's an issue of acting more than anything), and which the film positions as though it wants to make us understand the enormous cost of being a human to knowingly take the life of another human, regardless of the circumstances, over to a climax in which the entire population of Germany is seemingly killed by our rag-tag group of heroes in a thunderous action sequence that unambiguously, joyfully looks forward to the next wave of dead Nazi scum. Simply put, the film is too excited about its gruesome, frequent stop-overs with brutal violence (which begin in the very first scene, with an evocatively squelchy-sounding knife to the throat) to actually believe in the "violence does terrible things to men's souls" message it mouths throughout.

But philosophical shortcomings are at best a second-order problem with the film, which suffers from a far greater sin, cinematically-speaking: it's long, boring, and has unconvincing stock characters in place of people. It's about the crew of an M4 Sherman tank, named "Fury" and so-identified on the gun barrel, under the leadership of Sgt. Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt). The zesty caricatures inhabiting the tank are Bible-Thumping Southerner Boyd "Bible" Swan (Shia LaBeouf), Unbalanced Hothead Grady "Coon-Ass" Travis (Jon Bernthal), Lazy (Possibly Stoned?) Latino Trini "Gordo" Garcia (Michael Peña), and the aforementioned guileless newbie untouched by the horrors of war, and the only one of these people to have a single personality trait that doesn't directly follow from their one-line description, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman). To judge from the amount of time Ayer spends watching these five men doing absolutely nothing but interacting in the close confines of the tank, he apparently regards them as rich, vibrant personalities and not a collection of ancient stereotypes. And oh, my, the amount of time we spend sitting watching them is just endless. But not as endless as a scene with a couple of local German women (Annamaria Marinca and Alicia von Rittberg), where the threat of rape hangs over the proceedings like a haze of cigarette smoke and at least two of the five characters are turned into such petty-minded savages that nothing could possibly redeem them enough to make them likable again by the time the film needs us to be rooting for this precious band of brothers. It goes on for fucking ages. Halfway through the scene, I began to openly wonder if I was watching a film about a tank that had a luncheon scene with German women, or a film about German women hosting a luncheon that had, at one point, included a tank.

When Fury finally decides that it's done dicking around with moral questions it doesn't want to answer and just turns into a full-on tank-based action film (this happens well beyond the midway point of the 134-minute picture), it actually manages to turn into something worth watching. For tank movies are, when you think about it, vanishingly rare; perhaps because they are hard to shoot in and too lumbering to choreograph. But Fury's too big tank-based setpieces are far and away its most accomplished moments, where Ayer the poor director of actors steps aside to let Ayer the really great director of high-energy action take over (Ayer, the director of lingering, pornographic violence shows up every now and then, but not enough to ruin things). The action is hectic and terrifying, the sound mix roars and shakes you down to your bones, the bullets fire like laser beams from a sci-fi movie. Which never stops being distracting, but it's the weakest link in they otherwise splendid action.

It's not clear to me at all that "there's some really great action in the last hour, and in tanks! How novel!" is enough to compensate for the disastrously stereotypical and underplayed characters (the parts don't have the complexity for anything better, though only Lerman seems to be actively making things worse; LaBeouf, surprisingly, seems to putting the most effort into it and turning out the most distinctly-etched character as a result) and the wildly unpleasant love of violence disguised as as a saddened hatred of violence. Certainly, nothing at all could compensate for the fact that the movie is every second of 45 minutes too long. But if you get stuck watching it for whatever reason, at least it has the decency to back-load all of its best material, so it just gets better as it goes along.