Inglorious Basterds is an insane but deeply satisfying World War II spaghetti western.
Imagine if Sergio Leone and Francois Truffaut co-directed The Dirty Dozen after someone had sprinkled LSD on their lunchtime pasta and you’ll get a good idea of Quentin Tarantino’s latest film.
Set in its own alternative universe, it boldly reinvents the traditional war movie as a stylish revenge western whilst also paying deep reverence to cinema itself.
It will almost certainly divide audiences and critics, but this, for me, was a significant return to form for the writer and director.
Tarantino is one of those rare film-makers who became famous as a modern day auteur in the 1990s and it is worth recapping his career to date, to get a gauge of where this fits in to his career.
With his debut Reservoir Dogs (1992) he exploded on to the scene with a stunning heist movie that marked him out as a major talent with a particular ear for dialogue and an appetite for shocking violence.
Pulp Fiction (1994) not only built on the success of his debut but managed to become one of the defining films of the decade: it won the Palme d’Or; grossed over $200 million world wide; revitalised careers; spawned a raft of imitators and became a cultural phenomenon.
Jackie Brown (1997) perhaps could never live up to the acclaim and success of Pulp Fiction but it contains some of his best and most mature work, especially the performances of Pam Grier and Robert Forster.
Kill Bill Vol 1 (2003) and Kill Bill Vol 2 (2004) was long, drawn out revenge epic with Uma Thurman as an assassin that featured some brilliant sequences but felt like one film spread out too thinly over two.
The Grindhouse (2007) project was a double bill homage to 70’s exploitation cinema with Robert Rodriguez making the zombie horror ‘Planet Terror‘ and Tarantino making the stalker drama ‘Death Proof‘.
It flopped at the box office, which resulted in it being released as two separate films and thus ultimately defeating the point of being a double bill.
His work in that was mixed, with dull sequences with annoyingly verbose female characters contrasted with an underrated turn from Kurt Russell as the villain and a thrilling climax.
All of this brings us to Inglourious Basterds, a project that Tarantino has been developing on and off for years, which finally went in to production last autumn.
It is a World War II story (with significant chunks of history rewritten for effect) which involves a large ensemble cast of characters, who are slowly drawn into a tale of revenge.
There is a young Jewish woman (Melanie Laurent) who escapes the slaughter of her family by a ‘Jew hunting’ Nazi (Christophe Waltz); a group of Nazi-hunting commandos known as ‘The Basterds’ led by a Southern lieutenant (Brad Pitt); a British agent (Michael Fassbender) behind enemy lines; a Nazi war hero (Daniel Bruhl) who has become a film star; an German actress double agent (Diane Kruger) and the Nazi high command of Hitler (Martin Wuttke) and Goebbels (Sylvester Groth).
Now, you may have already heard of the decidedly mixed reaction to the film at the Cannes film festival this year, in which some critics declared their hatred of the film.
But after the hysterical reaction to Antichrist earlier this year and the misguided vitriol hurled at Che the year before I’m beginning to wonder if some critics are getting too affected by the early screenings, parties and stress of the festival.
When I sat down to watch Inglourious Basterds yesterday I did so with a degree of trepidation as I’ve fallen a little out of love with Tarantino’s work. Despite numerous qualities, the films of the past decade simply don’t compare to those in the previous.
But the good news is that this actually delivers the goods and whilst it isn’t in the same league as his first two films it is absorbing, well crafted filmmaking laced with considerable wit and style.
The big rap on it from some critics is that there is too much talk and that it is boring, but from the bravura opening sequence (a homage to an early sequence from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly) it had me hooked and if you think about, even Tarantino’s best films have been much more talk than action.
That opening scene is superbly handled – a master class in tension, involving a Nazi having a drink with a French farmer – and it sets up the rest of the story beautifully.
A lot of the film does involve characters talking for extended periods and there is a notable lack of conventional action sequences, but this is actually a strength rather than a weakness.
The main reason for this is that the pool of characters here are some of the best Tarantino has ever written and his uncanny eye for the right actor has paid rich dividends here.
It is being sold as a World War II action movie starring Brad Pitt, but this is a much more European flavoured film with a diverse and expertly cast ensemble.
Brad Pitt does well in a key role but the real stand outs are Christophe Waltz who is marvellous as the multi-lingual SS offficer nicknamed ‘The Jew Hunter and Melanie Laurent as Shosanna Dreyfus, his Jewish nemeis who ends up owning a cinema in Paris.
One sequence between them, set in a restaurant, is superbly played with an underlying menace and tension that is tweaked quite brilliantly. To some it will be just more ‘Tarantino speak’, but the context, the use of music and extreme close ups all give it a different texture from what you might expect.
The rest of the cast all do sterling work but special praise must go to Michael Fassbender and Mike Myers for their only scene together – a wonderfully played military briefing which is hilarious, although I suspect it will be a litmus test for those who love or hate this film.
Going in you might expect this to be mostly about the Basterds killing Nazis, but that is only one slice of the pie, with the real juice of the film being a revenge tale in which even celluloid itself is drafted into the plot.
Whilst much of the discussion about the film will inevitably centre around the director and his reputation, it is worth mentioning the wonderful technical work across the board.
The production values are first rate, with the studio based scenes (shot at Babelsberg Studio outside Berlin) mixed seamlessly with location work and the production design by David Wasco is complemented beautifully by the costumes by Anna Sheppard.
The cinematography by Robert Richardson is beautifully composed and when combined with Tarantino’s style and Sally Menke’s editing makes for some wonderfully snappy and memorable sequences. (One involving a map is almost pitch-perfect in its execution).
Music has always been a strong point in Tarantino’s previous films as he has made a point of never using an original composer and instead inserting previously recorded pieces.
Along with snippets of his beloved Ennio Morricone, he makes great use of David Bowie’s Cat People (Putting Out Fire), the music from The Entity and even a blast of Elmer Bernstein’s theme to Zulu Dawn.
For longtime fans of the director, look out for the now trademark scenes involving feet, a Mexican stand off, close ups of food (think cream rather than Big Kahuna burgers) and numerous references to films throughout.
At 153 minutes maybe some of it could have been cut a little bit more (one sequence in a bar seems to have been trimmed slightly since Cannes) but the fact is that I never looked at my watch during the film – it had me absorbed and each chapter rolling into the next was a pleasure.
Mainstream audiences may get put off by the use of subtitles (attractive yellow ones as it turns out) used in much of the multi-lingual cast and the fact that Brad Pitt is in it less than the marketing is letting on.
This is a film that exists very much in its own world, as you will see when it gets to the climax, but it is such a rich and lovingly created one that avoids the pitfalls of many movies set in World War II. It is as much about our perceptions and fantasies of that war than it is about the actual war itself.
In terms of where this fits into the director’s career, I don’t think Quentin Tarantino will ever top the expectations Pulp Fiction forced on him. Since the enormous critical and commercial success of that film he seemed to be indulged at Miramax (which, to be fair, his success helped shape) and perhaps he hasn’t had the creative tension down the years that he needed.
His last couple of films – despite undoubted qualities – seemed to be showing an artist retreating into his own self-referential head.
Grindhouse marked the point where he seemed to be chasing his own pop culture tail and this was paralleled by the commercial misfires at the newly formed Weinstein Company.
With this film they have partnered with Universal and interestingly this is the first time Tarantino has worked with a major studio as writer-director. Maybe this has given him a new sense of responsibility and helped him creatively.
Certainly Inglourious Basterds is a refreshing change of pace from the crime and exploitation influenced work he had been doing of late.
This movie will not please everyone, it will piss off some critics, it will cause heated debates and it may or may not even help save The Weinstein Company.
But in a summer that has given us soulless, mechanical junk like Wolverine, Terminator: Salvation, Transformers 2 and G.I. Joe, I am grateful that it exists and hopeful that it will be the platform for Tarantino to explore new creative territory.
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> Read more reviews of Inglourious Basterds at Metacritic