For Brad Pitt aficionados, the initial reaction to the trailer for his upcoming World War II drama "Fury" might have been a flush of familiarity: The actor, after all, memorably played a tough-talking, Nazi-hunting lieutenant in Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" just five years ago.
In addition to marking his return to the Western Front, "Fury" (out Friday) also represents the latest in a string of dark, gritty films for Pitt: Counting "Fury," six of his last eight live-action movies explicitly deal with grim themes including violence, the cost of freedom and the nature of humanity.
Over that stretch, Pitt has experienced artistic and commercial successes as well as outright flops. Here's a look at his five most recent gritty films (setting aside "Moneyball" and "The Tree of Life") and what lessons can be gleaned with regard to "Fury's" prospects out on the battlefield.
"The Counselor" (2013)
With a top director in Ridley Scott, a star-studded cast (Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem) and the first original script by Pulitzer-winner Cormac McCarthy, it's no wonder "The Counselor" was a highly anticipated crime drama that many observers assumed could be an Oscar contender. Upon its arrival, though, the film's oppressive bleakness, grisly violence and elliptical script translated to poor reviews and a meager box-office gross.
The lesson: A director with a clear vision and a talented cast still needs a strong script to work from. "Fury" would seem to have the first two in helmer David Ayer ("End of Watch," "Training Day") and actors Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf and Michael Pena. Whether it has the third — the script is also by Ayer — remains to be seen.
"12 Years a Slave" (2013)
Pitt had a relatively small role on screen and a sizable one behind the scenes, as a producer, on this Oscar-winning historical drama about Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery in the antebellum South. The film was a creative and commercial success (particularly given its weighty subject matter), though Pitt's near-angelic role as the Canadian laborer who helps free Solomon was scoffed at by some.
The lesson: "12 Years a Slave" is one of many best-picture winners to demonstrate how history and cinematic storytelling can combine to powerful effect, something "Fury" will no doubt hope to replicate. But "12 Years" also offers a cautionary tale: A star as big as Pitt benefits from a fleshed-out, three-dimensional role if he's to truly disappear into it.
"World War Z" (2013)
Beset by a release-date postponement, an ending that had to be scrapped and re-shot, a ballooning budget and negative buzz, this zombie epic starring Pitt as a world-saving U.N. troubleshooter once appeared doomed. Ultimately, though, the film snatched victory from the jaws of defeat with solid reviews and a worldwide box-office gross of $540 million.
The lesson: Bigger isn't always better. "Z's" reworked third act shifted from an all-out action spectacle to a taut, character-driven climax. Ayer would be wise to keep that in mind as he expands from urban crime stories to full-scale warfare.
"Killing Them Softly" (2012)
Pitt earned some fine notices for his role as a coolheaded hit man in Andrew Dominik's moody modern noir, but the film's unsubtle politics and art-house quirks didn't resonate with mainstream audiences wooed to the theater by Pitt's star power and slick TV spots.
The lesson: Audiences want what they came for, and in the case of "Killing Them Softly," they got something else, as evidenced by the film's "F" CinemaScore. Dominik told The Times back in 2012, "There are the people who think they're going to see a straight-ahead thriller and don't like all this other [stuff], and then you have the people who see it and they're happy there's more depth." But as he demonstrated, that's a tricky line to walk.
"Inglourious Basterds" (2009)
Tarantino's revisionist war movie was a hit with critics and audiences, becoming the filmmaker's highest-grossing film to that point ("Django Unchained" would later surpass it). Meanwhile, Pitt's performance as the enigmatic hillbilly and Nazi scalper Lt. Aldo Raine was perhaps the most indelible character in a movie full of them.
The lesson: Tarantino is such an idiosyncratic director that it's tough to compare his films to anyone else's. As far as "Fury" is concerned, "Basterds" presents something of a double-edged sword: While Pitt excelled in his first WWII outing, he'll also be looking to distinguish himself in his second go-around. Like his character in "Fury," he has his work cut out for him.
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