Friday, December 28, 2012

In Theaters: DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)

(US - 2012)

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.  Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Don Johnson, Dennis Christopher, Walton Goggins, Laura Cayouette, David Steen, Dana Gourrier, Nichole Galicia, James Remar, James Russo, Russ Tamblyn, Amber Tamblyn, Don Stroud, Tom Wopat, Bruce Dern, M.C. Gainey, Cooper Huckabee, Doc Duhame, Jonah Hill, Lee Horsley, Ted Neeley, Zoe Bell, Michael Bowen,  Tom Savini, Robert Carradine, Michael Parks, John Jarratt, Quentin Tarantino, and with the friendly participation of Franco Nero.  (R, 165 mins)

Perhaps cognizant of the fact that the likelihood of lightning striking twice with another reinvention of cinema along the lines of 1994's PULP FICTION is slim, Quentin Tarantino has spent the last 15 years content with being a mad scientist DJ of sorts, fusing various genres and making each new film an homage to the cult cinema of his past.  JACKIE BROWN (1997) was his love letter to Blaxploitation; the two-part KILL BILL (2003/2004) his tribute to martial-arts films; DEATH PROOF (2007) his '70s drive-in/car chase throwback; and INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) his spin on WWII movies.  DJANGO UNCHAINED is Tarantino's take on spaghetti westerns, namely Sergio Corbucci's DJANGO (1966), but reimagined as a pre-Civil War slavery/revenge saga.  Like most Tarantino films after JACKIE BROWN (maybe his most restrained, disciplined film and one that just gets better with each passing year), DJANGO UNCHAINED is guilty of unabashed self-indulgence on the part of its creator, but it's filled with such inspired enthusiasm, crackling dialogue, and a heart-on-its-sleeve love of movies that its appeal--so long as you can get by the splatter and the constant barrage of racial slurs--is positively infectious.  Tarantino's films of late aren't perfect and one could argue that there's some regression from the surprising maturity of JACKIE BROWN.  But really, if he just kept trying to top PULP FICTION, he'd fail miserably.  Films like BASTERDS and DJANGO UNCHAINED may not be reinventing the wheel (though they may try to reinvent history), but there's no denying that they're distinctly Tarantino and couldn't have been made with the same wit, style, and passion by any other director.  Flaws and indulgences aside, DJANGO UNCHAINED is a captivatingly unhinged, over-the-top blast.

In 1858 Texas, Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave purchased by German dentist/bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz).  Schultz is after the fugitive trio of Brittle brothers, and it's been brought to his attention that Django knows what they look like.  So, the doctor offers Django a deal:  travel with him as a "valet," and point out the Brittles, and receive a third of the reward money along with his freedom.  The two make such a great team that the deal blossoms into a partnership and a friendship, and Schultz offers to help Django find his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), whose whereabouts are unknown after the two were split up by a vengeful plantation owner (Bruce Dern) when they attempted to escape.  After doing some research, Schultz discovers that Broomhilda was sold to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the flamboyant owner of the plantation Candieland.  Posing as a pair of slavers interested in purchasing slaves for "Mandingo fighting," Schultz and Django arrive at Candieland to rescue Broomhilda, but face an unexpected obstacle in elderly house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).

Tarantino's gift for the verbose is on full display here, and, as in BASTERDS, it's Waltz who benefits the most, even though he's playing a good guy here--probably the moral center of the film--who's capable of shocking violence.  Schultz's mentor/student relationship with Django recalls Lee Van Cleef and Clint Eastwood, respectively, in Sergio Leone's FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965).  The pair make a memorable team and are given strong support by the villainous turns of DiCaprio and Jackson. Candie is the easily identifiable villain and DiCaprio relishes the chance to play such a pompously sneering scumbag, but Candie is frequently acting under the manipulative machinations of Jackson's Stephen, who arguably emerges as the film's true antagonist.  One of the most diabolical representations of the "Uncle Tom" stereotype ever presented, Stephen's self-loathing of his race and his alternately pragmatic, humiliating, and malicious eagerness to constantly be in the good graces of the rich and powerful Candie makes him one of the most complex characters in all of Tarantino's films.  It's a difficult role that Jackson essays very well while still dropping "motherfucker"'s as only Samuel L. Jackson can.

The supporting cast is filled with recognizable faces and Tarantino B-movie favorites, some of whom have little more than walk-ons.  Original Django Franco Nero has a brief conversation with Foxx's Django ("The D is silent," Foxx says after introducing himself.  "I know," Nero replies), and it's great to see guys like Dern, Don Stroud, Russ Tamblyn, Tom Wopat, and Lee Horsley again, however briefly.  Going back to John Travolta in PULP FICTION, Robert Forster in JACKIE BROWN, and David Carradine in KILL BILL, Tarantino always seems to give a forgotten actor another shot, and here it's BREAKING AWAY (1979) star Dennis Christopher in a showy supporting role as Candie's weasally lawyer.  Jonah Hill turns up as a doofus KKK member for apparently no other reason than Tarantino wanted to put him somewhere.  The KKK bit and a later sequence with Tarantino attempting an Australian accent as a slave trading employee with Michael Parks and John Jarratt (two of the director's apparently 10,000 favorite actors) are probably the two most egregious examples of things that should've been cut and could've brought the running time down to something more reasonable than a bloated 165 minutes, especially with Parks/Jarratt/Tarantino sequence coming after a jaw-dropping, splatter-filled shootout (all glorious squibs! No CGI!) that paints the walls of Candieland bright red and would've made Sam Peckinpah hard.

Continuing his trend of anachronistic music cues (like David Bowie's CAT PEOPLE theme turning up in BASTERDS), Tarantino expectedly utilizes vintage Italian western themes by Luis Bacalov, Ennio Morricone, and Riz Ortolani, but also songs by Rick Ross, James Brown & 2Pac, and even Jim Croce, and the effect, while jarring, actually works.  DJANGO UNCHAINED is an insane, freewheeling mash-up of cult movie/spaghetti western/exploitation madness that could only be a Quentin Tarantino film.  He may not have another game-changer like PULP FICTION in him, but he really doesn't need one.  There's nobody who does what Tarantino does with such unbridled glee and on such a grand scale.  DJANGO UNCHAINED isn't his best film, but like most of his work (except for that dreadful first half of DEATH PROOF), it will likely prove to be an endlessly rewatchable one, and that'll do just fine.

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