So this is what happens when Tarantino broaches history. In a berserk and shameless slice of delirious historical fiction – a signature QT wet dream punctuated by long derivative conversations and sharp lashings of violence – the ever-audacious ever-loquacious auteur presents an alternate version of WWII in which a group of elite macho killers scotched Germany’s chances of winning the war one Nazi scalp at a time.
Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is leader of the Basterds, who improbably survive for years in France, enjoying – and I do mean enjoying – a rampant killing season with the ultimate intention of finding Hitler and sending him to hell. The premise sounds action-packed but it’s mostly hot air and yackety-yak. Much of the dialogue is subtitled, which dilutes the writer/director’s slashing repartees and whiplashed words into something more contrived and far less arresting. Thus in Inglourious Basterds Tarantino’s fiery grasp of language is largely lost.
QT is many things to many people but boring should not compute; how unfortunate then that much of the film consists of waffling circumlocutory word slabs carried by a fickle up-n-down pace that at times roars along with frenetic hell-for-leather speed and at others is dragged and padded out to a slow and lumpy moil. A card playing sequence involving a Basterds double agent is excruciatingly long and tedious, the kind of scene conducive to extended editions or DVD extras but here, making the final cut, it inflicts substantial damage to the pace and rhythm of the story and the patience and goodwill of audiences. The film’s ending, an explosive confection of shock, violence and intoxicating historical revisionism, is set at a movie premiere attended by Hitler and his minions. It’s a blistering hoot, a beefy vomit in the face of good taste that damn near makes up for all the film’s slow spots.
Christoph Waltz is a great as a maligning cucumber-cool Nazi Col. Hans Landa (aka The Jew Hunter). It’s a role that would have suited the late David Carradine to a tee, and Waltz’s screen presence – he wisely handles QT’s writing with a slowly unwinding, sinister playfulness – is alone almost worth the price of admission.
Basterds has compelling moments but is a strange and inconsistent beast, a frothy high-handed experiment constrained, like the first Kill Bill movie, by Tarantino’s tendency to slip into gimmick mode. It feels very much like a grab bag of novelties: the concept, characters, locations and even the use of subtitles like amusements in QT’s why-not? playground of stylistic quirks and contrivances. Some of them impress, others don’t. Behind the gimcracks and gewgaws there is the skeleton of a rip-snorting classic here – we didn’t get it, no sir no how, but at times Tarantino comes close.
Inglourious Basterds’ Australian theatrical release: August 20, 2009.