"Django" A Step Down From "Basterds"

Quentin Tarantino has openly referred to “Django Unchained” as a companion piece to his 2009 film, “Inglourious Basterds,” so comparisons are not only inevitable, but fair. Both films are revenge-centric, featuring ragged antiheroes bringing forth copious amounts of firepower on two of the most reviled institutions of the past two centuries – the American slave trade and Nazi Germany, respectively. Tarantino is, of course, telling his own version of these true events, tweaking them to fit his particular brand of sweaty, swampy retro cinema. His favorite films – many of them grimy cult classics – have always been the lens through which he projects his work, but “Basterds” and “Django” are loose redos of films that have already been made. Thusly, any pretense of Tarantino treading new ground at this point in his career can be thrown out the window. And that’s what ultimately keeps “Django” from greatness.

Many moviegoers adore the way Tarantino makes movies, but probably not quite as much as the way he adores the way he makes movies. Even when Quentin’s not cameo-ing in his own pictures, he’s still onscreen – in every damn frame. From “Pulp Fiction” to “Kill Bill,” his films positively drip with everything that makes the man who he is – the music, the framing, the tack-sharp dialogue, and everything in between. Why do his characters have such a knack for heightened dialogue that no person in the real world would ever use? Why not? The Tarantino stamp is one of the most unique in the business, and “Basterds” was arguably the culmination of everything he’d done to date. The wonderful cinematography, the discovery of Christoph Waltz, the odes to 35mm film, and the gloriously over-the-top Nazi-hunting. It was all magnificent.

So why make the same film again? “Django,” a western/blaxsploitation hybrid, is certainly a different animal stylistically and its pleasures are definite. A handful of performances are rather striking and it has its fair share of insta-iconography. But it does exactly what its familiarity requires that it not do – it’s not as good as its predecessor. It doesn’t hit the highs of “Basterds” and, surprisingly, the first two-thirds are rather pedantic and reserved. Tarantino has never been afraid of onscreen bloodshed, but for the first time in his career it feels like he’s pulling punches. It’s not until the third act that we experience a catharsis of violence, and when it happens, it’s just not rooted in the reality of the film. The sudden endless bursting of squibs seems almost quaint or cartoonish in comparison to the rest of the film, not at all in line with the horror of the whip-induced scarring on the backs of so many slaves.

The film’s narrative – a slave (Jamie Foxx) and a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) track down the slave’s wife (Kerry Washington) at the hands of a cruel plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio) – is not deserving of a 165 minute running time, and the picture really drags in its home stretch. Even Tarantino’s trademark dialogue begins to dull throughout, occasionally sinking into – gasp! – cliché. However, Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson are terrific in supporting roles, and DiCaprio gives one of his finest efforts to date. There’s a big future for him in cinematic villainy if he wants it. The film’s funniest scene involves the unlikely duo of Don Johnson and Jonah Hill as a pair of pitchfork-toting white supremacists, but it – like many scenes that might have been trimmed – comes off as wildly ancillary.

Django and his wife, Broomhilda Von Shaft, are played to mixed results. The picture has perhaps the strongest heartbeat of any Tarantino film to date, and the story requires that we fall as hard for “Hildy” as Django has. Kerry Washington doesn’t get much dialogue to work with, but her presence is soothing, her innocence going a long way in evoking empathy for she and her husband. Unfortunately, Django, as written, likely required either a superstar or an unknown, and Jamie Foxx is neither. His rapport with the rest of the cast is unremarkable and he’s not physically imposing in the least. The role was reportedly written for Will Smith, and someone of his popularity and stature would have been markedly more interesting, especially playing against type. Foxx is in over his head, and his undeniable strengths (like the vulnerability he displayed in both “Ray” and “Collateral”) are misused here.

For all its disappointments, “Django Unchained” is still extremely well-coiffed. It’s as well-made a film as you’ll see all year, but Tarantino has permanently handcuffed himself with the highest of expectations. “Django” is exactly what you’d expect from this cast and crew, but with fewer moments of inventiveness and a higher ratio of unexceptional dialogue. It’s not ideal to compare every Quentin Tarantino picture to the rest of his filmography, but it’s a testament to his excellence that one small step down feels much more significant than it probably is. If you’re looking for an engaging slave-revenge epic, this is the perfect fit, but if you want the be-all and end-all of pulp cinema homages, “Django Unchained” will leave you cold. I have complete faith that Tarantino is capable of topping himself once again, but it’ll likely have to wait until he’s thirsty for more of a challenge. His comfort zone is becoming awfully familiar.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: December 25, 2012
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Gerald McRaney, Dennis Christopher, Laura Cayouette, M.C. Gainey, Don Johnson, Kerry Washington, Anthony LaPaglia, RZA, Tom Wopat, James Remar, James Russo, Todd Allen, Jonah Hill
MPAA Rating: R (for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity)