- Rated R
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All photos © The Weinstein Co.
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
fter failing to win over the mainstream audience (or any audience, for that matter) with the hugely underrated and under seen cinematic experiment known as “Grindhouse,” it seemed like Quentin Tarantino might return into hiding to obsess over his next project. Instead, he did the complete opposite, rushing into production on his long-delayed World War II epic, "Inglourious Basterds," in time for it to premiere at Cannes this year. As the favorite son of the French film festival, Tarantino’s new movie was supposed to be bulletproof, but all it managed to muster was a mixed response from critics and moviegoers alike. And for the life of me, I can’t understand why. “Inglourious Basterds” is easily the director’s most mature film to date, and though it might not be the masterpiece he playfully hints at in the final seconds, it comes pretty darn close.
Opening in 1941 in Nazi-occupied France, the film follows the escape of a young Jewish woman named Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent) after her family is massacred by the diabolical Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), otherwise known as The Jew Hunter. Three years later, Shoshanna has somehow managed to evade capture and now runs a movie theater that she inherited from her aunt. When German war hero and fellow cinephile Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) becomes smitten with the girl, however, he suggests that she play host to the premiere of the new Nazi propaganda film by Adolf Hitler’s second-in-command, Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth). Shoshanna begrudgingly agrees, but only because she plans on killing the Nazi officials in attendance (including Hitler, played by Martin Wuttke) by lighting the theater ablaze.
Meanwhile, a unit of Jewish-American soldiers known as the Basterds have gone behind enemy lines and worked up quite a reputation for collecting the scalps of their enemies. Those lucky enough to escape with their lives only do so after the leader of the group, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), has carved a swastika into their forehead. Hoping to put their special skills to use, the OSS recruits the Basterds to assist an undercover British intelligence officer (Michael Fassbender) and German film star (Diane Kruger) in their plot to blow up Shoshanna’s theater. The problem is, neither party knows what the other has planned, and in typical Tarantino fashion, things begin to go horribly wrong.
For a movie made by one of the most identifiable directors in the business, “Inglourious Basterds” is the least Tarantino-esque of all his films. There is still plenty of great dialogue, great music, and even a few gimmicks (like Til Schweiger’s hilarious grindhouse-inspired introduction or the arrangement of the story into chapters), but proof that Tarantino has evolved as a filmmaker can be found in the simple fact that the Basterds are only utilized as supporting characters. That might disappoint those who feel betrayed by the trailer (which suggests a war film in the same vein as “The Dirty Dozen”), but it’s actually for the better. After all, most of these guys aren’t even given a chance to talk, let alone create a distinct personality for themselves, and while that would have likely been remedied had Tarantino decided to turn the story into a TV miniseries instead, there’s really no need for it here. Sure, maybe the title may seem a bit misleading, but who’s to say the Basterds are the only, um, bastards in the story?
Mélanie Laurent may technically be the lead protagonist of the film, but it’s actually more of an ensemble effort. This divide also allows Tarantino to throw in a little comedy without undermining the more dramatic moments, because the Basterds are actually quite comical in their brutal treatment of the Nazis – namely Brad Pitt, who delivers each line with such brash indifference that you’re not sure whether to fear him or adore him. Obviously, it depends on what side you’re on. The rest of the Basterds are mostly just fancy background dressing, but horror director Eli Roth has fun channeling his inner psycho as Pitt's baseball bat-wielding right-hand man (known to the Nazis as The Bear Jew), as does Schweiger playing a former German soldier who has switched sides.
In fact, just about every major actor in the film delivers an amazing performance – from Laurent as the tenacious but guarded survivor to Michael Fassbender’s small but memorable role as an overconfident British officer who’s bitten off perhaps a little more than he can chew. Nevertheless, it’s Austrian TV actor Christoph Waltz who absolutely steals the show as the main villain. His Col. Landa is a bad guy for the ages, not only because he excels at playing a monster, but because he does so while still impressing the audience with his supreme intellect and demeanor. Waltz also plays Landa as a slight eccentric, squeezing the flavor out of every juicy line like a freshly picked orange. It’s no wonder Tarantino cast him in the part, as he often makes his words sound even better than they read. The same can be said for the script as a whole, because even though Tarantino has been accused of being a tad verbose in the past, the lengthy stretches of dialogue in "Inglourious Basterds" only serve to build the tension. This is what making movies is all about, and love him or hate him, Tarantino is one of the best.
Special Edition Blu-Ray Review:
The two-disc release of “Inglourious Basterds” isn’t quite as heavy on bonus material as fans would probably like, but it’s still better than we’re used to seeing from a Quentin Tarantino film. The only real highlight of the set is a 30 minute roundtable discussion between QT, Brad Pitt and Elvis Mitchell, but there are also a few extended scenes, another featurette narrated by Mitchell about the use of movie posters in the film, and the propaganda film-within-the-film, “Nation’s Pride,” in its entirety. Rounding out the Blu-ray edition is an interview with actor Rod Taylor about being cast as Winston Churchill, a behind-the-scenes look at "Inglorious Bastards" director Enzo Castellari's cameo in the film, two video montages of on-set antics, and a “Killin’ Nazis” trivia game.