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'Django Unchained' Review
Quentin Tarantino's latest history rewrite has an ex-slave taking down the South's vilest slave owner. But while "Django Unchained" has Tarantino's usual verbal, violent fireworks and dynamite cast, the bar from his greatest hits is too high.
Quentin Tarantino used to make ultra talky, ultra violent crime movies as his specialty. But nowadays, while Tarantino is still ultra talky and ultra violent, his new genre of choice seems to be revisionist history. In Tarantino world, the Nazi regime actually ended in 1944 at a Paris movie theater - and now that he has had Django Unchained, it turns out a slave turned bounty hunter brought Mississippi slave owners to their knees two years before the Civil War.
In 1858, a slave named Django has been sold and forced apart from his beloved wife Broomhilda. But in a fortuitous coincidence, the overseers that sold him are sought after by bounty hunter/dentist Dr. King Schultz, who frees Django so that he can identify and help him kill the fugitives. In return, Dr. Schultz makes Django his full-time partner and vows to help him find and free Broomhilda. However, they find her at the notorious plantation 'Candieland' which is owned by the venal Calvin Candie and overseen by equally vicious house slave Stephen. Therefore, to free his bride, Django will have to get a little dirty.
Tarantino isn't one to break away from what works for him, which has its faults and virtues. Although Django Unchained puts him in a whole new historical realm, one can always count on him to filter anything through one of his favorite grindhouse/Western/crime movie genres. In this case, he turns slavery into a Spaghetti Western, to the ire of the likes of Spike Lee.
However, when Tarantino is on his game, his formula of giving a B-list genre an A-list treatment - with newfound contemporary and historical relevance - is unlike anything in the business. It often worked gloriously in Inglourious Basterds, and Django Unchained provides its own kind of subversive thrill at its best. It also helps that Tarantino includes a dynamite soundtrack filled with character theme songs, his favorite Ennio Morricone music cues and even contemporary rap.
Like in Basterds, Django lets victims of a great historic crime rise up and get the kind of bloody revenge they probably couldn't in real life. While this may be murky in a few ways, there is an undeniably visceral thrill in moments such as Django taking down his overseers, and the various bloody shootouts in the last half-hour. But for all of Tarantino's prowess in killing people, for any reason, his movies are more about talk than action these days.
In truth, Django Unchained is Tarantino's first buddy movie in the opening hour, as Django and Schultz join forces and kill white folks. There's reason to nitpick that Schultz is more prominent and verbal than Django himself, yet with Christoph Waltz working through pages of Tarantino's dialogue again as Schultz, it isn't a deal breaking tradeoff.
In any case, Django is more like Tarantino's Man with No Name, although he does get to shoot off his mouth and gun on his own before long. This may start as one of those typical movies where a white savior gets more focus and credit than a minority, but it gets erased by the end. In fact, a climactic act by Schultz does far more harm than good - and extends the movie by another half-hour or so - before Django gets to clean it up. Plus there is perverse irony after Basterds to have a German, let alone Waltz, serve as the one good white man this time.
But before that last act of blood and guts, Django Unchained becomes somewhat hit and miss once it finally arrives at Candieland. While Inglourious Basterds made long conversations and slow building suspense nail biting, Django gets bogged down in talk at the midsection. And while Tarantino flirts with greater complexity by having Django boss around slaves like Candie on the way to Candieland, and by making house slave Stephen just as villainous as his white master, his usual movie riffs, dialogue and shootouts win out before long.
As it turns out, the greatest problem with Django Unchained is that Tarantino has set his own bar too high. With Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds, one never knew what Tarantino would come up with next, even if his style was always the same. It makes his movies a true rollercoaster where you never see the most shocking, stunning scenes and elements coming, but that kind of magic is harder for him to recapture here.
Although Django is Tarantino's most controversial movie yet due to its subject matter, it is also one of his most conventional. And when comparing it to Basterds and how it took on both history and the movies, it is more lacking by comparison. Despite Django's various high points and moments, they can't quite match Basterds scenes like Hans Landa's interrogations, the long showdown at the bar, or the revisionist climax at the theater.
But when Tarantino alone isn't enough, he can always rely on his words and a major cast of actors to chew on them. While Jamie Foxx doesn't have as many of those words as some of his co-stars, he has more than enough to chew on as Django. Given that he takes a while to be the star of his own movie, and that he has such showy co-stars as Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson, Foxx could have easily been lost in the shuffle - and many critics believe he was.
Yet when Tarantino allows Foxx and Django to shine, whether through an Eastwood homage, one-liner or shootout, they still come through. Foxx hasn't always been fully engaged in his post-Oscar roles after Ray, but he is firing on all cylinders here.
Nevertheless, Waltz nearly walks off with the movie right next to Foxx, just as he stole Inglourious Basterds from Brad Pitt and everyone else. Still, just as Tarantino is relying on his usual formula, Waltz is basically borrowing from Hans Landa - only this time, it is acceptable to cheer him for charming the pants off of people and outtalking them before shooting them. Fortunately, Waltz is just as much of a perfect fit for Tarantino's material as Jackson and Uma Thurman have been so many times.
Speaking of Jackson, he also comes from almost nowhere to try and steal the movie, as Django's most controversial character. Tarantino not only subverts the Uncle Tom stereotype through Stephen, he comes down on it almost as hard as he does on Candie and his fellow slave owners. For Jackson's part, he sounds a bit too contemporary and too much like his usual self at times, but he is still comical, chilling and hissable all at the same time.
Still, the unquestioned main villain of the movie was supposed to be DiCaprio's Candie, although he doesn't give up that title willingly. The last time DiCaprio played a villain in 1998's The Man In The Iron Mask, he was miscast, inexperienced and overshadowed by his Titanic stardom. Now he is much more refined and up to the task - and after his recent intense dramatic roles, it is almost refreshing to see DiCaprio try to be charming again, albeit in the most vicious way. Yet when Candie's gloves come off in his big sinister moment involving a skull, brain examination and a business deal, DiCaprio gets the movie going again and earns his place among Tarantino's most sadistic psychopaths.
But while Tarantino gives DiCaprio, Jackson and Waltz verbal fireworks and Foxx action fireworks, he has nothing left over for Kerry Washington as Broomhilda, although her rescue is the supposed purpose of the story. He is also more devoted to peppering his supporting cast with recognizable faces from years past, like Don Johnson, Dennis Christopher, James Remar, Bruce Dern, Russ Tamblyn, Michael Parks, and Franco Nero in an in-jokey cameo. There's even room for Jonah Hill, Tarantino himself in his most inexplicable cameo yet, and Walton Goggins in a role that was once set for both Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell.
Like with many of Tarantino's films, the controversy over Django Unchained is as big as the movie itself - in this case over the violence in the wake of the Newtown shooting, the use of slavery in this specific context, and the constant use of the n-word. Yet the arguments over Tarantino's violence reached their peak in the late 90s, while the n-word backlash has been truly overblown.
Truthfully, Django Unchained is among Tarantino's more conventional works, which is ironic considering the subject matter. But there are always grand joys to be found in even a lesser Tarantino film - and this one could grow in stature with multiple viewings like Basterds did.
Yet at the moment, Django is just shy of greatness due to having less of that classic Tarantino invention, and white knuckle shock value, than it should have. Nevertheless, the invention and value it does have would be more than enough from anyone else.