Quentin Tarantino’s slavery revenge flick Django Unchained marks his best work since Pulp Fiction.
Thursday, December 27, 2012
Quentin Tarantino is at his best when he gets out of his own way. Specifically, his tendency to overwrite dialogue scenes—and then not cut them down when editing—is often his worst quality. But when he’s bold, stylish, clever and concise, as he is in Django Unchained, few are better.
This is writer/director Tarantino’s slave revenge fantasy, similar to how Inglourious Basterds (2009) was a revenge fantasy for Jews. Bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) needs a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) in order to recognize the person with whom Schultz will collect his next bounty. They are successful, and form an unlikely friendship given this is 1858 Texas. A deal is made: Schultz trains Django to be a bounty hunter and works with him through the winter; in the spring, Schultz will help Django find his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).
Upon searching for Broomhilda they come upon a plantation called Candyland, run by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, having the most fun he’s had on screen in years). The plot to rescue Broomhilda involves Mandingo (i.e. bare-knuckle slave) fighting, speaking German, and lots of money, and all presumes Candie’s head slave, Steven (Samuel L. Jackson, also having fun), doesn’t reveal the scheme.
The film is part Spaghetti Western and part Blaxploitation, two late ’60s/early ’70s cinematic fads that had a style and cheesiness all their own. Tarantino embraces this, and then adds his own touches: A lynch mob’s argument over uncomfortable masks is priceless, as are Django’s fashion choices and quick-quip remarks. (Aside: Will Smith was originally attached to play Django, and you can envision him having more success with the role than Foxx.)
It also helps that the cast is full of immensely talented actors who’re thrilled to deliver the rich, quirky dialogue. Specifically, Waltz, who won an Oscar for playing Col. Hans Landa in Basterds, seems born to speak Tarantino’s words. Note the way he always remains calm, knowing his counterpart is intellectually inferior, and always has a plan no matter how dire the situation. Every time Waltz twirls his mustache you can see him smiling inside at what he’s saying, and darn if we don’t love every second of it.
Foxx has the tougher, less showy role, but needs every ounce of his dramatic (he won an Oscar for Ray, don’t forget) and comedic talents to pull it off, and he does. As Candie, DiCaprio chews scenery and hams it up, appropriately so. The pre-release supporting actor Oscar buzz may be a bit much, but he is excellent and Oscar voters love to reward actors who go against-type, so it’s certainly possible.
As expected, there are scenes of gushing blood, but it’s not hyper-violent, save for one fighting scene in which more is implied than shown. If there’s a knock on the film it’s the episodic structure that follows Django and Schultz as they move from one adventure to the next, but it always has connective tissue and never ceases to be engaging.
Probably the best thing about the deliciously entertaining Django Unchained is that film lovers will understand what Tarantino is paying homage to and appreciate the touches, while others will simply find it a grand entertainment that works on its own terms.
Either way, this is Tarantino’s best work since Pulp Fiction—not that the films that followed it were lacking in any serious way. Kill Bill (Vol. 1 and 2, with 3 in the planning stages), took the pretty face of Uma Thurman and turned her into an action hero, and one that didn’t have to rely on supernatural powers to kick ass. She was all long legs and Japanese-steel sword-wielding badassery on her revenge hunt for the gang of assassins who tried to kill her at her own wedding. His Jackie Brown also paid homage to Blaxploitation flicks, showcasing Pam Grier as a flight attendant who becomes caught in a plot between an arms dealer and a police officer. The themes are all there—exploitation, revenge, strong female characters—all hallmarks of Tarantino, whose Django Unchained showcases a filmmaker who continues to evolve in rich and dynamic ways.
Django Unchained 3½ • Directed by Quentin Tarantino • Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson and Kerry Washington • Rated R • 165 min. • Opened Christmas Day at Northridge Cinemas, Maya Cinemas, Century Cinemas Del Monte Center.