DJANGO UNCHAINED (Dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2012)
Three years after his revisionist World War II epic INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, Quentin Tarantino is back with this blaxploitation Western, which tackles slavery, revenge, and how many times the “N-word” can be said in a 2 hour and 45 minute movie.
Almost as if he’s atoning for playing an evil Nazi in BASTERDS, Christoph Waltz portrays an abolitionist-minded bounty hunter who frees a slave named Django (Jamie Fox) from his sinister masters (James Remar and James Russo) in the deep south of 1859.
Waltz recruits Fox to join him in his bounty hunting (“Kill white people and get paid for it? What's not to like?”), and they set off to rescue Fox’s wife (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of Leonardo DiCaprio as a brutal yet charming Mississippi plantation owner.
Tarantino takes his sweet time getting to DiCaprio’s plantation, as Fox and Waltz make their way across the terrain, beautifully shot by cinematographer Robert Richardson. At times the film comes off like a collection of comedy sketches loosely strung together. One scene, in which a Colonel Sanders-looking Don Johnson as another villainous plantation owner named Big Daddy argues with his men about the badly cut slits in their proto Klan hoods, feels like it could’ve been an outtake from BLAZING SADDLES.
Dinner at DiCaprio’s, with his house slave (an intensely invested Samuel L. Jackson), is also leisurely paced. Fox and Waltz, under the guise of slave traders, are trying to pull the wool over DiCaprio’s eyes and liberate Washington, but Jackson sniffs them out. This is one of those slow burning sequences that can only end in bloodshed, but Tarantino drags it out too much, which calls attention to how slim the narrative is.
The Spaghetti Westerns and ‘70s grindhouse movies that Tarantino is forever paying homage to didn’t have very layered storylines either, so that’s not too terrible an issue, but it’s sometimes tedious how he cares more about hanging out with his characters than putting them into challenging scenarios.
From the retro Columbia studios logo to the RZA’s “Ode To Django” that plays during the end credits, DJANGO UNCHAINED feels like a Tarantino movie through and through. It’s a profanity-laced dialogue-driven violent action comedy with well chosen cameos (look for Jonah Hill, The Dukes of Hazzard’s Tom Wopat, Tarantino (you knew he'd show up, right?) and the original Django himself, Franco Nero), set to a hip soundtrack (a mix of Ennio Morricone, hip hop, and even a little Johnny Cash), that could only come from the twisted mind of the 49 year old former video store clerk.
Fox puts in a solidly stoic performance as the title character, interacting superbly with Waltz, both obviously having a blast with Tarantino’s way with words. DiCaprio, sporting a devilish goatee, also appears to be having fun, but he’s not given a very interesting character. DiCaprio doesn’t come off as despicable as he’s supposed to be. It’s Jackson who takes that honor.
And, of course, it's a boy's club, so don't expect much from the women present - Washington, at least, makes her presence known.
DJANGO may be more for Tarantino fanatics than casual movie-goers, so if you don’t have much tolerance for the man’s particular brand of abrasive cinema, you won’t be won over. Fanboys will be picking it apart and poring over the inevitable much longer director’s cut (a four hour version may be released to theaters depending on the box office of this one) for years, but I doubt many of them will think its Tarantino’s best film.
So anyway, it's pretty a pretty ballsy move for the Weinstein Co. to release this movie, maybe containing the most excessive use of the N-word in cinematic history, on Christmas Day. It's a move that proves that, these days, a Tarantino movie, however crude the content, is a tent-pole event.