Apparently some critics are upset at Quentin Tarantino for creating a revenge-fantasy, parallel-universe World War II movie in which a team of Jewish bounty hunters scalp Nazis, history is rewritten at every turn and Brad Pitt talks like the offspring of Forrest Gump and a Monty Python character.
Guess we should also condemn “The Blues Brothers” for the gratuitous use of “Illinois Nazis,” and of course Indiana Jones, and “The Dirty Dozen,” and…
Or we could recognize a big-ass drive-in movie for what it is.
Offensive? Really? As if audiences aren’t smart enough to discern that “Inglourious Basterds” is a cinematic mash-up in which Tarantino samples everything from the spaghetti Western to the film noirs of the 1940s to movies like “The Dirty Dozen.” He’s not engaging in Holocaust denial or exploiting history; he’s giving us a great B-movie that careens wildly from style to style but is always, always letting us in on the experience. Here is a movie, Tarantino tells us from the opening scene, which is the best opening scene in any film of 2009. It is not to be taken seriously at any turn. Enjoy the ride.
The “Basterds” of the title are a team of bloodthirsty, Jewish soldiers led by Brad Pitt’s (decidedly non-Jewish) twangy-voiced, goofy-mustached Lt. Aldo Raine. (A nod to old-time character actor Aldo Ray, who was in a number of war pictures.) They are not interested in capturing German soldiers; they are interested in hunt-and-execution, but only after inflicting as much pain as possible on their prey as they extricate information about the location of other Nazis.
Pitt delivers a robust and hilarious performance—-but the Basterds aren’t even the most intriguing characters Tarantino has assembled in yet another one of his brilliant, deeply layered screenplays in which multiple storylines play out at a leisurely pace before intersecting in ingenious and of course bloody fashion.
In the opening scene, we meet the Nazi officer Hans Landa, who takes pride in his nickname: “Jew Hunter.” Austrian actor Christoph Waltz (Best Actor winner at Cannes) gives the supporting performance of the year and one of the most memorable performances of the decade as Landa, a Satanic figure with a silky smooth veneer. Landa sits across the table from a French farmer, downing the farmer’s milk, lighting up his pipe and affecting a friendly tone as he verbally vivisects the poor man into divulging information about a Jewish family that’s been in hiding for months. It is a masterful scene, with the tension escalating like a drip…drip…dripping faucet that cannot be silenced. If those opening minutes were released as a self-contained story, it would be worthy of an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film.
But Tarantino is just getting warmed up. In addition to meeting Aldo Raine and his team of vigilantes (including director Eli Roth in a terrific turn as a killer known as the “Bear Jew,” who revels in beating his victims to death with a baseball bat), we see Hitler and Goebbels as cartoonishly grotesque parodies (and why not?); Michael Fassbender as a British commando who also happens to be a film critic (CQ); and Diane Kruger as a famous and beloved actress working as a double agent.
Most and best of all there’s the luminous Melanie Laurent as Shoshanna, who narrowly escaped Landa’s clutches a few years earlier and is seen a few years later, running a cinema in German-occupied Paris. A German war hero tries to court her (she’s repulsed) by convincing Goebbels they should premiere the fictional version of the war hero’s story at Shoshanna’s movie house. When Hitler himself decides he’ll attend the premiere, Shoshanna and Aldo launch separate and equally insane schemes to turn that premiere into a night the Nazis will never forget—-that is, if any of them survive.
That’s the meat-and-potatoes of “Inglourious Basterds.” There’s no shortage of quality kills and over-the-top violence—-but as is always the case with Tarantino, the real exhilaration comes from extended sequences peppered with funny, smart, surprising exchanges, followed by bursts of violence. At one point Kruger’s Bridget sets up a meet with a team of Allied agents masquerading as German officers in a cellar bar populated by real German soldiers who are getting drunk, as well as a keen-eared Nazi officer who is lurking around the corner, picking up that something ain’t right in the bar. It’s a World War II version of the scene in “True Romance” when everybody winds up in the same room, and things are light and casual for a while—-and then, not so much. What a great piece of filmmaking.
My only disappointment with “Inglourious Basterds” comes with the final act, which is set up so beautifully but doesn’t quite fire on every cylinder. Shoshanna’s revenge plan isn’t as clever as you’d expect it to be, and a few characters exit the movie in less than satisfying fashion. As for the pure-evil Hans Landa: he has some amazing moments near the end, but I would have liked to see—-well, I don’t want to give anything away. After the movie’s been out for a while, I’ll return to Landa’s fate.
For more than a few critics and cinephiles, Quentin Tarantino will always be held against the Quentin Tarantino who revolutionized movies with “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction,” just as M. Night Shyamalan will never live down the expectations created by “The Sixth Sense.” Both directors would probably admit they might have enjoyed the hype and the fame a bit too much, and that may have rubbed some people the wrong way. And maybe neither will ever match the greatness of the movies that turned them into icons.
Fine: “Inglourious Basterds” isn’t as good as “Pulp Fiction.” Neither are 99.9 percent of films that have come out in the last 15 years.
It’s still one of the best movies of 2009.