It’s been a while since we’ve seen a movie envisioned, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Of course a Tarantino movie is never truly original. He often pays gleeful tribute to his
favorite genres by going even more over the top. “Kill Bill” (both volumes) is a love letter to martial arts movies. “Jackie Brown” honors the Elmore Leonard crime novel. It’s in these kinds of movies when Tarantino is clearly having the most fun and, lucky for us, it’s also when he’s at his best.
His latest release, “Inglourious Basterds,” has supposedly been on Tarantino’s backburner for over a decade. Based very loosely on a low-budget war movie from the 1970s with the same - though correctly spelled - title, “Basterds” tells the fictional World War II tale of a band of Jewish-American soldiers led by Lt. Aldo Raine (a rugged, red-necked Brad Pitt), charged with hunting and killing Nazis and making sure that word of their brutality spreads throughout the Third Reich.
This revenge fairy tale sounds like an interesting tweak on a war movie, and one that could certainly benefit from Tarantino’s quirky touch. And glimmers of his talent do shine through in bits of biting dialogue (Pitt has a few exquisite one-liners) and scenes filled with so much unspoken tension that you feel like laughing just to break it. The standout scene is easily between a French farmer and the famed “Jew Hunter” (Christopher Waltz), who pulls off a Columbo-esque interrogation of epic proportions (and makes asking for a simple glass of milk the most threatening thing you could imagine). Unfortunately, this interrogation scene is played out several more times throughout the film, and it doesn’t stand up to repetition very well.
Considering the film is 153 minutes long, these Tarantino gems are few and far between, and they are often lost within several side stories that converge at the end of the film, but feel disconnected throughout. One deals with a young Jewish woman (Melanie Laurent) plotting revenge for the slaughter of her family at the hands of the Nazis. She now lives under an assumed name in occupied Paris and owns a movie theater, where she plans to exact her revenge when it’s filled for a movie premiere with Nazi leaders, including a cartoonish Hitler (Martin Wuttke).
The second side story involves a German movie star (Diane Kruger) working as a double agent for the Basterds. Unbeknownst to the theater owner (and vice versa), they are also plotting to bring down the Nazi regime at the same movie theater on the same night. Unfortunately, too much time is allocated to each of these side stories, draining the focus away from the part of the film that presented the most potential for Tarantino to showcase his unique talents – the Basterds themselves.
So who are these Basterds? Not enough time is taken to tell us more. We only know that they’re Jewish, American, scarily strong (one is called “The Bear Jew”) and clearly lacking any humane sympathy for the enemy. All they care about is their target: 100 Nazi scalps apiece (their commander, after all, is called “The Apache”). But where did they come from? How do they justify the unspeakable acts they perpetrate? What do they do when they’re not on the hunt? These are exactly the questions that the Tarantino of old would have delighted in exploring, as he did in “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.” Perhaps it was the war-movie genre that threw him off, or maybe it was dealing with something as grim as the Holocaust. Whatever the reason, he missed his mark.
This doesn’t, however, mean the film is awful. Far from it. The most surprising part about “Inglourious Basterds” is how quickly the 2 1/2 hours passes, which can only be credited to a well-paced story, seamless editing and music that will surely make a quality soundtrack CD.
As for the violence, Tarantino exploits it with all the joy you would expect from the man behind the bloodbaths that are the two “Kill Bill” movies.
But there is something just plain wrong about watching (and in a sense condoning) Jews retaliate with the same level of cruelty and lack of humanity as their enemies. In fact, none of the revenge plots woven throughout the movie felt redemptive. And without that signature Tarantino humor and finesse to get you through, the thought that came to mind when the credits began to roll was, “What was the point?”
- Rated R
- Grade: B-
- Opens Aug. 21