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"Inglourious Basterds," the latest from Quentin Tarantino, is exactly what you would expect from the director of "Kill Bill" and "Pulp Fiction." The stylish World War II Nazi-hunting movie is tense, violent, slow-burning, hilarious, and jaw-dropping.
While this might be what a Tarantino fan would always expect, it's not necessarily the film that the previews promised. I've noticed more and more lately that ads for movies either give everything away, or are cut in such a way that they seem to be showcasing completely different films.
The latter is the case with "Basterds." If you saw the preview, you would expect that this is a Brad Pitt film. If you have to name a star of the film, I suppose you would say it was Pitt, but he's actually in less than half of the film. The film starts in Nazi-occupied France. Col. Hans Landa, a.k.a "Jew Hunter," played with equal parts menace and civility by Christoph Waltz, shows up at a dairy farmer's house to see if he is harboring Jews. It is set up by a reference to spaghetti westerns ("Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France") and that sets the tone for the entire film.
Ennio Morricone music blares as Landa approaches. An extremely tense conversation goes on for nearly 15 minutes before Landa shows his true intention. That is what is so great about his character and the Oscar-worthy performance. Even though he's pleasant and polite, there's an unsettling undertone in every line of dialogue. This man is good at his job, which is where the Basterds come in.
As Lt. Aldo Raine, Brad Pitt gets to have a blast. His southern drawl is perfect as he talks about "killing NATzees." Some people might be put off by the over-the-top performance, but I enjoyed it. It's a great counterbalance to Waltz's understated portrayal. The other aspect that keeps the performance from becoming silly is the fact that the film doesn't stay with Aldo and the Basterds.
As I said, that opening scene is lengthy as are the other tense scenes in the film that set up new characters and lay out the ground work for plans to take out the top ranks of the Third Reich. It's almost as if Tarantino wanted to lighten things up by going from insanely tense with Landa, to insanely funny with Raine. This might seem uneven to some, but it worked for me.
Viewers might be expecting more of an action film from the previews, as well. This is a movie about killing Nazis, after all. But Tarantino has never been an all-out action filmmaker and this film, despite the previews loaded with gunshots, is relatively light on the action. That's not to say it's boring, it's just that this film is two and a half hours long and the focus is on the tense buildup that leads to a shootout rather than the shootout itself.
Remember, Tarantino's first film ("Reservoir Dogs"), was about the aftermath of a bank robbery and the robbery itself was never shown. He's interested in what happens before and after, and it makes the action memorable and powerful. In one scene there is a 20-minute set up to a shootout that is less than a minute long. When Tarantino does show violence, though, it is brutal and sometimes shocking. The "Nazi scalps" that Pitt requests in the trailer are provided and Eli Roth, as the "Bear Jew," gets to swing away at a Nazi's head with a baseball bat. Tarantino doesn't cut away for that one. We get to see a crazy-eyed Roth bludgeon the Nazi in sickening detail.
It's all part of Tarantino's style and this is not a typical World War II movie and should certainly not be viewed as such. In fact, looking at this movie in relation to other, more serious, WWII films would make it downright offensive and far too tongue in cheek. For instance, Hitler is a character in the film and I do mean character. To trivialize one of the most evil men in the history of the world is quite tricky, but it has happened before.
Chaplin poked fun at Hitler in "The Great Dictator" and comic books from that era featured the likes of Captain America fighting the tyrant. If viewed in that light, this film is pitch perfect and you can ignore historical accuracy and have some fun with it (and I mean completely ignore historical accuracy).
People want to see real-life evil icons faced with violence and pleasing conclusions, not war trials and deaths in bunkers. Consider "Inglourious Basterds" as a World War II fantasy film and you probably won't come away offended or angry.
If there is one thing about the film that I took issue with, it wasn't the comical treatment of a serious time period, it was the lack of info given for the Basterds. You get hints at the history of the characters, like Hugo Stiglitz's amusing mini bio, but I wanted each soldier to get his own little story.
A few of them don't have any lines, even. I suppose I was expecting more of a "Dirty Dozen" approach to the Basterds. I'm usually all for ambiguity, like the unexplained intentional misspelling of the group, but I wanted more background from Tarantino on this one. This is only a minor issue I had with this otherwise amazing film.
I'm a strong believer in having the proper expectations for a movie. It can make or break your enjoyment of the film. If you can ignore the previews and go in expecting a Quentin Tarantino film rather than a Brad Pitt movie, then you'll come away very pleased.
Eric Harris of Cannelton is a movie buff and blogger who posts reviews of films at www.canneltoncritic.com.