Monday, December 24, 2012

Review: "Django Unchained"

"Django Unchained" may just be Quentin Tarantino's most purely entertaining film since ... ever.

This revisionist Western mixes elements of Tarantino's beloved grindhouse exploitative violence, slow-fuse dramatic scenes building up to major bloodlettings and de rigueur juxtapositions of funky modern songs against classic genre backdrops.

It's a daffy, loopy jaunt that doesn't really add up to anything more than a good time. But what a good time it is. I don't think I've enjoyed a Tarantino movie this much since "Pulp Fiction."

With this revenge story/anti-slavery rant, the quirky writer/director feels like he's finally settled into a rhythm where he's not just trying to recreate the tawdry D-list flicks adored in his youth, but actually crafting something original that connects with an audience. With the dense, sprawling "Inglourious Basterds" and other recent work, it often seemed like he was making movies only for his own self-satisfaction.

The result is lighter and groovier, one that more fully embraces Tarantino's dark, puckish sense of humor. The first half of this nearly three-hour film is more or less pure comedy. One standout is a bit where a group of precursor KKK thugs argue about the efficacy of riding around in hoods with eyeholes cut in them, a scene that would have felt right at home tucked in the middle of "Blazing Saddles."

The plot is straightforward. Django (Jamie Foxx, in full cooler-than-thou mode) is a former runaway slave who's rescued by an oddball bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz, who needs his help identifying three brothers on his hit list.

In exchange, Schultz agrees take on Django as his protégé and help him rescue his wife Hildy (Kerry Washington) from servitude. She was bought up and packed off to Candieland, a seemingly idyllic Mississippi plantation lorded over by the superficially genteel Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Schultz is played by Christoph Waltz, who had an Oscar-winning turn in "Basterds" and is equally good here. Tarantino wrote a great part for him, and Waltz runs away with a subtle, refined performance. Schultz is a German who used to be a dentist, and still rides around in a coach capped with a giant tooth on a spring. He likes to think of himself as cold-hearted and mercenary, but Schultz is repulsed by the way blacks are treated in the South of 1858.

Though at least he's honest enough to admit the similarities with his own trade, killing men for rewards. "Like slavery, it's a flesh for cash business," he purrs.

It's fun watching Django quickly evolve from timid slave to trash-talking killer who loves nothing more than putting white folks in their place ... preferably, in a hole in the ground. He acquires the skills of quick-draw shootist, seemingly overnight, and soon sets to putting them to good use.

The villains are a virtual parade of slovenly caricatures, festooned with facial hair and Neanderthal attitudes toward slaves. "Django" must set some sort of dubious record for the most uses of the n-word in a film. Tarantino, though, seems neither afraid nor enamored with the word, simply putting it in his characters' mouths as it would have been employed pre-Civil War.

Things really get rolling when Django and Schultz meet Calvin, and lure him in with a bogus story about buying one of his prize Mandingo gladiators for an outlandish sum. The matched fights to the death, which hold all the glamour of cockfighting with humans, give lie to Calvin's courtly manors.

DiCaprio is both a hoot and a horror, playing a man who not only embodies these contradictions, but fails to even recognize them.

Samuel L. Jackson also has a nice turn as Steven, the head of Calvin's slaves who's been a thrall to depravity so long it's seeped into his soul.

The long Candieland sequence -- basically the last half of the film -- is an exercise in patiently setting the pot to simmer. Schultz and Calvin engage in a match of manners, while the latter is intrigued by the surly Django's barely concealed insults and bad attitude. We know it's all mounting up to the gunfight to end all gunfights -- replete with geysers of blood -- but we don't mind because Tarantino's buildup is almost more fun than the blowout.

The movie occasionally lapses into self-indulgence, as with a late unnecessary scene involving an Australian mining company, with Tarantino himself playing one of the heavies (and employing quite possibly the worst Aussie accent in the history of cinema). It's an amusing bit, but it doesn't fit with the rest.

Still, "Django Unchained" is a witty, brash mix-up of Old West trappings and modern cool.

3.5 stars out of four

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