Since “Reservoir Dogs,” Quentin Tarantino has carved a unique place for himself in the movie world. As he shifts through the film collection from that South Bay video store, where legend has it he once toiled, he has been rethinking and remaking grind-house movies for the post-modern world.
Throughout this genre-movie deconstructionism, Tarantino has adapted the posture of the coolest dude in cinema. He portrays sexism, racism, genocide and homophobia as things that exist but really don’t matter.
What does matter is his movie’s ability to mock this b.s.
This flippant cynicism can be hugely entertaining at times, so compelling and downright funny that his fan base has grown considerably.
He so deliciously upended Hong Kong martial arts and revenge melodramas in his two-picture “Kill Bill” saga — and was dutifully lionized by audiences and critics (myself among them) — that he felt encouraged to try a new tack in postmodernism.
In “Inglourious Basterds” he rewrote history.
In that movie, Brad Pitt and a bunch of actors got rid of Hitler before the Allies did. Now in “Django Unchained,” Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz free the slaves in America before Lincoln gets around to it.
How cool is that?
In actuality only Foxx and Kerry Washington, who plays his wife, literally get freed and Foxx has to kill a whole lot of white folks to accomplish that. I also wouldn’t give much for their chances of getting out alive from the Deep South on horseback but the movie ends before this is attempted.
(No, that’s not a spoiler. Does anyone going to see Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” starring Foxx as the title character really think he won’t survive?)
The use of the name Django implies Tarantino is riffing off Spaghetti Westerns. In reality the film more squarely aims at ’70s blaxploitation and slave-era melodramas such as “Mandingo.” Like the latter, “Django Unchained’s” plot even involves slaves trained as bare-knuckle fighters.
So after calling out the Nazis and showing what comic figures they truly are, Tarantino is doing the same to the rich, white racists who ran the “Gone With the Wind” South. Like “Inglourious Basterds” though there’s nowhere really to go with this deconstruction other than comedy. And only some of “Django Unchained” is truly funny.
The film’s funniest scene, its most Tarantino-esque if you will, occurs when a plantation owner (Don Johnson) and his vigilante posse dash on horseback through the night to ambush and kill Waltz’s bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz, and his associate, Foxx’s Django.
For no real reason they wear bags over their heads not unlike the sheets the KKK will later adopt. Then everyone reigns to a stop to complain they can’t see where the hell they’re going with these damn bags on their heads.
One rips his head bag off and, look, it’s none other than Jonah Hill. A comic scene erupts where everyone grouses about the eye holes in these bags and the posse member whose wife stayed up all night to make them fusses that all his colleagues can do is bitch and complain.
Funny stuff to be sure. Tarantino never quite finds the same comedy in the whippings and beatings and gristly murders of slaves but settles instead for grotesque characterizations of slave owners, their hired hands and women folk.
Chief among them is Leonardo DiCaprio’s oily and degenerate plantation owner who amuses himself with Mandingo fights between his slave-fighters and other owners’ champions. Tarantino mocks him with the name of Candie and his plantation as “Candyland.”
He is paired with an equally corrupt “house Negro”, Stephen, played by of all people Samuel L. Jackson, the hipster killer-preacher-philosopher-street intellectual in “Pulp Fiction.” His character shows not an inkling that siding with his master in his savagery against fellow blacks is any sort of racial betrayal.
Tarantino then gets many old timers and characters actors to flesh out his Candyland including James Remar, Dennis Christopher, Robert Carradine, Bruce Dern, James Russo, Walton Goggins and Michael Parks.
Even the original Django, Franco Nero, turns up earning him a “Friendly Participation”designation on the credit roll.
Waltz, a supporting player who went on to win just about every acting honor in “Inglourious Basterds,” here is handed essentially a lead role even if it’s not the title one.
His German-born bounty hunter, speaks better English than the brutish white Southerners and possesses of more knowledge — he shocks Candie with the news that his beloved Alexandre Dumas is black. He does indeed waltz through the deep South as Tarantino’s chief emissary from the future.
He upbraids the slave holders for their uncouth civilization and mocks them relentlessly. Few even catch on.
Foxx’s character is more mythological than real. Nothing ever explains his fighting skills but with a name like Django why bother? Still it’s a showy part and Foxx makes the most of it.
The same can’t be said for Kerry Washington’s Broomhilda. (Her name is a key plot point.) A superb actress, she isn’t asked to do much more than to be scared, sexy or sad.
The rest of the cast including the by now expected cameo by the writer-director himself aims at delicious satire and mostly hits the mark.
“Django Unchained” has exciting action, solid stunts, funny moments and a cast deeply invested in Tarantino’s comic deconstruction of movie genres. Just a hair under three hours, Tarantino again proves himself an adept entertainer: Dull moments aren’t many.
But the movie lacks the sense of fun which pervaded “Pulp Fiction,” “Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2” and parts of “Jackie Brown” and “Grindhouse.” You can go only so far mocking the human pestilence that existed in this country for so very long. While inventive and clever, it doesn’t add up to much more than a minor film from a major director.
Opens: December 25, 2012 (TWC)
Production companies: Columbia Pictures, Brown 26 Productions, Double Feature Films
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, Don Johnson, James Remar, Amber Tamblyn, Franco Nero, Robert Carradine, James Russo, Zoe Bell, Michael Parks
Director/screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino
Producers: Stacy Sher, Reginald Hudlin, Pilar Savone
Executive producers: Harvey and Bob Weinstein, Michael Shamberg, Shannon McIntosh, James Skotchdopole
Director of photography: Robert Richardson
Production designer: J. Michael Riva
Costume designer: Sharen Davis
Editor: Fred Raskin
R rating, 165 minutes