Quentin Tarantino's latest film, the long-awaited Inglourious Basterds, is here, and with it comes mighty expectations from his fan boys. Unfortunately, Basterds is Tarantino's weakest film to date - though that doesn't mean it's bad. Well-written and expertly crafted, Inglourious Basterds is an effective film; it's just not the off-the-wall war epic one would expect.
It's not surprising that Tarantino's version of a war film is one built around character and dialogue, not around violence and action. Even his most action-packed of films - Kill Bill, Vol. 1 - hinged on strong, dialogue-driven scenes. And yet, it's a little disappointing that Tarantino didn't channel his genius into a more focused narrative complete with a few lengthy action scenes and development of what one would assume to be the central characters - those mentioned in the title.
Inglourious Basterds is, roughly, about a group of nine Jewish-Americans called the "Basterds," led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), who travel to France and Germany to literally scalp Nazis and strike fear into the hearts of their enemies. Simultaneously, we're introduced to a Jewish woman named Shosanna (Melanie Laurent), who, years after escaping the brutal execution of her family at the hands of the ruthless Jew Hunter (Christoph Waltz), is now running a cinema in downtown Paris. After a German hero takes a liking to her, he convinces the propaganda commission to premiere the latest Nazi war film at her theater. Subsequently, she decides that she's going to burn it down with everyone - including Adolf Hitler himself - in it. Meanwhile, the Basterds are plotting to blow up the cinema themselves.
As is the case with most Tarantino films, his story is a collection of loosely strung-together scenes that engage by pure force rather than guiding us through a natural development of a group of characters. The development of Melanie's character is pitch perfect, but, somewhat surprisingly, the Basterds themselves seem like afterthoughts. We don't get to know the men all that well; the only one who is given a flashy back story is a Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger). Maybe this is okay, and maybe I'm the one to blame for setting false expectations based on Tarantino's past storytelling approaches, but I found this a bit odd. Is this a complaint? I'm not sure.
In fact, I'm not even sure how much I liked the movie. That's a bad thing for a critic to say, but Inglourious Basterds is, as most Tarantino movies are, incomparable to other films. I know that I didn't enjoy it as much as his other movies, but it's not necessarily fair to compare it to his other movies. He's allowed to do something different. And yet, it's also unfair to compare Basterds to other war films. I'll admit I was expecting something more along the lines of Full Metal Jacket or Apocalypse Now, two over-the-top and at times tongue-in-cheek war classics, but in hindsight I should never have expected Basterds to be anything like those. Those movies were both developed to show the ridiculousness of war, whereas Basterds is just meant to be ridiculous.
So, let's break things down by what works and what doesn't work. The film is slow at times, almost to the point where you want to shout out to Tarantino, "Get on with it already!" and yet each plodding minute he dives deeper into a scene, the more the tension builds. Still, those expecting any semblance of an action film should be aware that Basterds is almost entirely dialogue driven.
The lack of action also results in a lack of character development for the title characters. The movie is, in many ways, about their "final mission," and yet it begins with a bunch of young guys getting enlisted onto the team. There's a disconnect here, one that could have been remedied by showing a little more of what gave the Basterds their menacing reputation in the first place. Once Tarantino starts killing the title characters off, it's unlikely you'll know any of their names; they're simply red shirts meant to die.
Lastly, when things do finally boil over at the end, the climax is hurried and unsatisfying. I don't know what Tarantino could have done differently, but a little more could have gone a long way.
On the flip side, a lot of things work great. On their own, each individual scene is pitch-perfect. The first sequence, a long, drawn-out affair where a Nazi interviews a farmer that may or may not be hiding his Jewish neighbor, is incredibly tense. Many other scenes follow a similar formula, providing seemingly innocent dialogue laced with suspense.
Many of these scenes benefit immensely from the performances, most dominating of which is by Christoph Waltz, who parades around in good humor and utter insanity as Colonel Hans Landa, a.k.a. the Jew Hunter. Waltz is absolutely stunning in his role; every time he's on screen, his demeanor charming, even friendly, you get the sense that he's about to rip someone's head off. Sometimes something bad happens, and sometimes it doesn't; the magic is that he's completely unpredictable.
Pitt is also stellar, though in a much hammier kind of way. He's ugly, nasty and yet, also, strangely charming, more so when he's attempting to portray an Italian despite being unable to get rid of his Tennessee accent. Laurent is also extremely satisfying as Shosanna; she seems innocent and unoffending, but you can see the fear and anger simmering just beneath her skin.
When all is said and done, Inglourious Basterds is a superbly acted, well-written and suspenseful war drama of sorts... what sorts I'm not quite sure. It is the war film for Tarantino fans, or, more appropriately, Tarantino's war movie. Still, the movie lacks the energy and creativity of Tarantino's other works; this may be intentional, but it's still off putting. The result is a war movie that succeeds minute by minute and yet lacks the holistic synergy Tarantino has been able to pull off in the past. Still, recommended.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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