Everybody thinks everything is overrated or underrated. That's the fun of it: it's why we get to latch onto certain books or movies or video games or whatever as the objects of our special, private passions, and why we get to feel superior to all the people who like... that.

In the career of Stanley Kubrick, a director whose mature work I tend to adore (though to disprove what I just said, I think his reputation is just about perfectly rated, if we take it as an average between the loudest internet fanboys and the more dubious humanist critics who see him as too icy), my pick for his most overrated film is A Clockwork Orange, a technically flawless work of audience manipulation at its most unrelenting, yet which I find to be a little bit too smug in its satire and exaggerated in its cruelty. And my pick for his most underrated is Full Metal Jacket, a movie that's often described even by Kubrick lovers as a fantastic opening 45 minutes with a concluding 70 minutes that simply aren't up to the task of following that opening (actually, it's often described in terms of a first and second half; but the time imbalance is to stark for me to let that slide). So underrated and mis-read; I might go so far as to propose - though quietly and hesitantly, so nobody gets too mad at me - that the second part of Full Metal Jacket is actually the better part, and that the opening is there to give context and background to the rest, not to serve as a self-contained mini-movie.

Of course, the opening 45 minutes, which follows the eight weeks of boot camp for a platoon of new recruits to the United States Marine Corps, at Parris Island in 1967, is a lot more energetic and easy to like, particularly if one elects to view R. Lee Ermey's star-making performance as the foul-mouthed drill instructor Sgt. Hartman as largely entertaining. And certainly, appreciated in a vacuum, lines of dialogue (many of them invented by Ermey, a former drill instructor himself; others are taken verbatim from Gustav Hasford's semi-autobiographical novel The Short-Timers) like "I bet you're the kind of guy that would fuck a person in the ass and not even have the goddamn common courtesy to give him a reach-around!" or "God has a hard-on for Marines because we kill everything we see! He plays His games, we play ours! To show our appreciation for so much power, we keep Heaven packed with fresh souls!" are nothing if not quotable. But it's also more than a little terrifying, and the fact that Hartman chokes a recruit in the first scene for daring to grin at the sergeant's apparent buffonery, I think the film's intentions are clear enough. The training segment of Full Metal Jacket is not entertaining: it is savage, and it helps to remember that it's not even really an exaggeration of reality.

I am not, mind you, trying to downplay how well the film's opening act works; I merely wish to deny that it's somehow a different and vastly superior movie to what follows. It's all part of one great long arc that presents the most interesting variation in Kubrick's career on one of the theme he nurtured from 1956's The Killing onward: the breakdown of systems. Perfect crimes, military justice, nuclear fail-safes, artificial intelligence, 18th Century European social codes: over and over, Kubrick tells stories about what happens when a stable system is infected by sloppy human emotions. The system in Full Metal Jacket is spelled out in dialogue by the unfailingly blunt Hartman: it's the program of training that breaks down human beings and turns them into warriors, perfect killing machines with no trace of whatever resistance - the film's not sentimental enough to invite us to call it "morality" - prevents normal people from going to war and feeling good about killing people by the handful. And we see the breakdown of this system from two directions: first, what happens when it works too well, and the removal of a subject's humanity goes all the way 'round the other side and turns into an inhuman madness; second, what happens when these flawless devices, these Marines, are dropped into a crazed environment of the purest unfathomable chaos.

Kubrick, fairly or unfairly, has been typically defined as a filmmaker with detached, chilly style that takes a remote, objective stance to his characters; a God's-eye view, I have seen it called. That's truer of some of his movies than other, but it is most true of this film, which is the most observational and least-invested movie of the director's career. Of his ten canonical films (the ones he didn't later reject), Full Metal Jacket is the only one that found the famously diverse Kubrick return to a genre: it is his second war film, thirty years after Paths of Glory. But the two are about as different as war films could be. Paths of Glory is a righteous howl of moral frustration, one of the most direct and piercing anti-war arguments ever filmed. I honestly don't know that Full Metal Jacket could even be described as anti-war; it's certainly not pro-war, but more than anything else, it simply attempts to comprehend war, even as it admits repeatedly that war is inherently incomprehensible. Far less interested in critiquing the dehumanising effect of military training and the noisome brutality of combat than in documenting it, Full Metal Jacket is focused entirely on "what"-oriented questions: what kind of person fights, what makes them that way, what does it do to them? And if in proffering its inconclusive answers to those questions, it manages to argue that war is wicked, and breaking a man's soul till he can perform that wickedness is wickeder still, I'm sure Kubrick and his co-writers Michael Herr and Gustav Hasford himself (there was a whole conflict over working together and if Hasford would get a credit) weren't trying to hide from being called anti-war

It is, in the main, a very clinical film, which I mean to be a description more than a criticism. It's an interesting mood for a relatively mainstream film about a very prominent political and social event to adopt; light years away from Oliver Stone's heated Vietnam picture Platoon, which came out the preceding year. The two make for an illuminating contrast in how cinema was ready to start processing the trauma of Vietnam; they're so distinct in approach and motivation that it's barely worth comparing them, and yet they compliment each other so well that they make about as natural a double feature as I could imagine. Kubrick's film is more detached, of course, and far more methodical in its aesthetic, as should hardly be surprising. Indeed, "methodical" is almost too general a word: it's repetitive and mechanical in exactly the ways it attempt to dramatise within its characters, repeating movements and echoing shot set-ups in multiple locations and contexts, using the visual structure of the film to imply and demonstrate the burned-in training of the well-oiled fighting machine.

And while the very precise construction of visuals implies order, the narrative destroys that order, and maybe this is what makes people so antipathetic towards the film's second portion. Full Metal Jacket has the weirdest narrative structure of any Kubrick film, even more than 2001: A Space Odyssey: it can't rightly be called two, three, or four acts, though it mimics elements of all of them. The first 45 minutes play like a classic second act with only a single scene to function as a first act, and the remainder of the film ends like it had a three-act structure but doesn't build up to it, instead allowing the narrative to shuttle around from one stop to another without forming any kind of arc of events, and barely chaining things together outside of the fact that they take place in chronological order and all involve Private "Joker" (Matthew Modine), the recruit from the first half the film selects as its protagonist for no reason. The interchangeability of the recruits is, in fact, heavily insisted-upon in the first sequence, with its unbelievably deep focus that refuses to foreground any one character. Most of the invidividual men are seen in identical, repeated shot set-ups, and only the wild card Private Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D'Onofrio, giving one of the great performances in all of Kubrick) is consistently shot in different angles from odd directions. And he ushers us into the film's pointedly aimless, messy second half by killing himself, in a scene of wonderful tension amped up by D'Onofrio's performance and Vivian Kubrick's scraping, mechanical music.

The aesthetic in the second half attempts to retain the rigid compositions and precise, right-angle camera positions of the opening, but events keep pushing it in off directions; Kubrick and Douglas Milsome's cinematography imposes order, the action and sound mix and Martin Hunter's editing keep violating it, and so it goes on and on. It's the best kind of cinema, unifying everything that makes a movie a movie into creating its message of the chaos and confusion of war.

And yet, it never sentimentalises that chaos, making us feel for the poor soldiers caught up in them; it simply diagnoses it. It is as remote and chilly as Kubrick gets, with exterior lighting that's hellbent on making the sky seem as blank and white as could possibly have been achieved. It makes the world look blank, and it flattens things out - and that's the other thing, this is a flat movie, with action occurring on multiple planes without depth, and with people lit to seem two-dimensional. Like nearly all of Kubrick's films, it even had a mono sound mix initially, that later home video releases have unwisely converted to 5.1 surround; it's not a huge bother in most cases, though it's unquestionably one of the worst of the many ways that Warner Home Video has mistreated Kubrick on DVD and Blu-ray. In Full Metal Jacket, though, it's an absolute crime: the mono mix is absolutely suberb, rendering everything from speech to bullets to the devilishly ironic music (all upbeat pop from the period, along with a lacerating use of the "Mickey Mouse Club March" in the finale moments to drive home how divorced the film's Marines are from their actions) in a single wall with every sound clearly audible, but incapable of emerging from the greater morass of disordered noise.

There are enough individual moments that don't quite work that I wonder about tempering my overall enthusiasm for the film slightly - the death of one Marine, in slow-motion, is weird sensationalism and much beneath the film's dignity, and I don't really know that we needed two hooker scenes - but that would be silly. Full Metal Jacket has always been, to me, one of Kubrick's foremost triumphs, a genuinely challenging and uncomfortable war film that follows through on all of its ideas even when cinematic convention demands that it find something, anything humane to lean back on. It's not cruel, and it's not nihilistic, but it's harsh as anything; it creates an experience of constant abuse of one sort or another that does not let us or the characters out of hell for one minute, but this approach is so fully supported by the material that even at the film's bleakest, I still love it as one of the greatest English-language films of the 1980s.