Reviewed by Jonathon Howe.
As soon as the opening bars of the Django theme song kick in, paired with bright blocked credits and dramatic camera zooms, you know you're in Quentin Tarantino country.
The American director's three-hour epic about slave-turned-bounty hunter Django's (Jamie Foxx) mission to save his wife from the clutches of brutal plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a hilarious and violent romp through the spaghetti western genre, complete with drawling rednecks, tortured slaves and loads of bloodshed.
No doubt fans of obscure cinema will enjoy the many films Tarantino doffs his cap at throughout, but even without the subtext Django Unchained is a rollicking journey through the pre-Civil War Deep South, which plays out like an antebellum era mythology in blaxpoitation mode.
Though violent in nature, Django's motives are pure. He wants only his wife and his freedom, and is prepared to commit ultra violence to get it.
The film starts with Django being freed by German dentist and bounty hunter King Schultz (a wonderfully charming Christolph Waltz). The pair join forces to track down and kill wanted men on the proviso that they eventually free Django's slave wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who is on the Candie plantation. When the pair travel there under the ruse of being slavers looking to buy a fighting slave, they become embroiled in a conflict with the charismatic owner and his intensely loyal, and extremely unpleasant, house slave Stephen (Samuel L Jackson).
Tarantino, having first toyed with westerns in Kill Bill 2, revels in the stylised nature of the genre. A wonderfully gory shootout at the Candie plantation evokes memories of the big shootout in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. Looking at a bird's-eye view shot of the carnage, you can almost hear Clint Eastwood's Blondie from Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad and The Ugly uttering: "I've never seen so many men wasted so badly." Another memorable scene featuring a group of masked riders, resembling the Klu Klux Klan, intent on killing Django and Schultz takes a turn for the absurd when they begin to argue over the quality of their sheet masks.
But the film is not all about titillation. It also takes an ethical stance on issues of racism and slavery. As ridiculous as some of the scenes may seem, it is shocking to see the brutally casual violence and cruelty of the white plantation owners and their acolytes.
Django Unchained is not for the faint of heart. Those not accustomed to explicit violence, however exaggerated and cartoonish, or flagrant use of the n-word, should probably steer clear. But this is entertaining, engaging and intelligent cinema at its best, and Tarantino has once again shown that few can do it better.
- Manawatu Standard