By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Aug. 21, 2009
Quentin Tarantino has always worn his references proudly. An acknowledged cinema geek whose early years were spent in blissful self-education in the motifs of B-movies, noir pulp and the generic gestures of spaghetti Westerns and 1970s exploitation flicks, he went on to create films that stole from the best, and sometimes worst, that Hollywood had to offer. Like a delirious and sometimes demented magpie, Tarantino feathered his movies with the detritus of pop culture, creating visceral, glibly funny pastiches ("Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction") and, once in a while, even delivering stories about recognizable human beings ("Jackie Brown").
With the eagerly anticipated "Inglourious Basterds," Tarantino manages to simultaneously surprise and revert to predictable form. The surprise lies in his choice of period and subject matter. Set in France during World War II, "Inglourious Basterds" tells the fictionalized story of a special squad of American Jews whose mission to kill and capture German soldiers was uniquely practical and symbolic. But as rich as the subject matter is in both action and metaphor, in Tarantino's hands it becomes mere scaffolding for his chief preoccupation, which is the movies.
From the admittedly breathtaking opening sequence, which in its meticulous staging, pacing and acting pays loving homage to the work of Sergio Leone, to the Grand Guignol of a climax set in a Paris cinema, "Inglourious Basterds" isn't about history or war, or people and their problems, or anything of substance or meaning. It's a movie about other movies. For all its visual bravura and occasional bursts of antic inspiration, it feels trivial, the work of a kid who can't stop grabbing his favorite shiny plaything.
To the degree that viewers share Tarantino's obsessions -- with cinema, music and bloody, ritualized violence -- they will enjoy "Inglourious Basterds," which undoubtedly possesses its share of grace notes. Finest by far is the German actor Christoph Waltz, who in a revelatory performance plays the German colonel and legendary "Jew hunter" Hans Landa. Waltz appears in that fabulous opening sequence, confronting a French dairy farmer whom he suspects of harboring a fugitive Jewish family. As he drinks a glass of the farmer's fresh milk, Waltz's Landa takes his place among the pantheon of great film villains, the personification of smiling evil and playful, menacing politesse.
That first scene turns out to presage much of what is to follow in "Inglourious Basterds," whose structure pretty much comes down to scenes of people talking followed by paroxysms of brutal violence (although it must be said that Tarantino shows admirable restraint in the first outburst). What's more, it ends with the movie's most problematic stumper, a gesture that is completely out of keeping for a chief character, but without which the movie would have nowhere to go.
Landa is by far the strongest character in "Inglourious Basterds," which stars Brad Pitt as his American counterpart, Lt. Aldo Raine, who early in the movie is shown assembling a group of Jewish soldiers whose mission is to do "one thing and one thing only: killin' Nazis." Only in Pitt's attempt at Smoky Mountain vernacular, that last line comes out sounding like "one thang and one thang only: killin' Nattzies." Mustached and flinty-eyed, Pitt's character ends his speech by announcing that he's part Apache, and as such will insist that each of his men owes him "one hunnert Nattzie scalps." (The deliberate misspellings of the title, presumably, are meant to simultaneously pay homage and make a crucial distinction from the 1978 Italian war movie "The Inglorious Bastards.")
Because it's Tarantino, viewers can rest assured that we'll see those scalps being taken. And we'll see a character called "the Bear Jew" -- played in one of several instances of stunt casting by pulp horror director Eli Roth -- beating a German soldier to death with a baseball bat. In an attempt to go "The Dirty Dozen" one dirtier, Tarantino piles on yet another macabre flourish, in the form of a swastika that Raine carves into the foreheads of the Germans he doesn't kill. Doling out such graphic sequences like so many dog biscuits, Tarantino clearly has sought to reward the "Kill Bill" crowd who just can't get enough of guts, gore and torture. In a second plot line, the beautiful owner of a Paris movie theater (played by Mlanie Laurent) begins her own plot against the Nattzies, one that hinges on the premiere of a propaganda film featuring the German version of Audie Murphy and the flammable properties of old-fashioned nitrate film stock.
Busy, busy, busy. And it gets even more frenetic when the Basterds conspire in a plot against Third Reich bigwigs with a gorgeous German double agent (and actress) played by Diane Kruger channeling Marlene Dietrich, and a dashing, unflappable British officer (and film critic) played by the terrific Irish actor Michael Fassbender channeling Trevor Howard. With name-checks of Leni Riefenstahl, G.W. Pabst and the movie studio UFA dropped like so many bundled incendiaries, "Inglourious Basterds" often feels like a windy tutorial in prewar German cinema history, broken up by the odd firefight or brutal murder. Mashing up visual styles and musical eras with blithe anachronistic license, Tarantino at one point stages a scene to resemble "The Lady From Shanghai" by way of a dime-store pulp novel, set to David Bowie's "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)."
If only the Allies had had Tarantino on their side; he could have made Hitler's head explode. As it happens, they must instead settle on having their actions and exploits extruded through his own bizarre sense of cruelty, spectacle and talky, post-modern irony. (Characters are routinely introduced by way of cheesy '70s-era screen titles.) In his defense, Tarantino announces right off the bat that "Inglourious Basterds" is little more than a fairy tale, in a title that reads, "Once upon a time in . . . Nazi-Occupied France." Still, even with the most elaborately embroidered myth, it helps to believe at least one word of it.
It's interesting that "Inglourious Basterds" follows two other movies that have spun their own tales of comeuppance and macho Jewish heroism: last year's "Valkyrie," which turned real-life attempts to assassinate Hitler into a sleek, "Mission: Impossible"-like thriller, and "Defiance," which received high marks from historians for getting the story right about real-life Jewish partisans who bravely fought back. Compared with those relatively sober films, "Inglourious Basterds" unspools less like bold revisionism than a lurid wish fulfillment fantasy of revenge, cinephilia and carnage. Tarantino isn't interested in telling an authentic or believable story in "Inglourious Basterds" so much as using World War II as a backdrop for his ongoing enterprise of cinematic recycling. He's managed to feather yet another one of his nests, which at this point are feeling all the more flimsy for being overstuffed.
Inglourious Basterds (151 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for strong graphic violence, profanity and brief sexuality. In English, German, French and Italian with subtitles.