Tarantino's new revenge fantasy delivers

Last updated 14:00 31/01/2013
Mohua Sun

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Django Unchained Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio. Directed by Quentin Tarantino. R16.

Writer-director Quentin Tarantino has become synonymous with movies that are violent, humorous, unpredictable and unusual. To that you could easily add provocative, excessive and entertaining.

His latest film, Django Unchained, is all of the above - but also even more manipulative, self-indulgent and unwieldy.

Tarantino's early films - Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown - waded deep into the criminal underworld swamp as he created his own original version of the noir genre. A measure of his success is how other film-makers began to imitate his style (and still do).

Kill Bill moved into "revenge" territory, blending Eastern martial arts with the spaghetti western. In Inglourious Basterds, he targeted evil on an epic scale - the Nazis and Hitler - with an army squad of Jews meting out vengeance.

Django Unchained is a companion piece to Inglourious Basterds, but this time Tarantino targets an evil found in his own country's history - slavery and racism - in a story mixing Sergio Leone spaghetti western and blaxploitation elements.

Starting in 1858, two years before the beginning of the American Civil War, his story has a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) agreeing to help Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German-born bounty hunter of wanted-dead-or-alive fugitives he prefers to kill, with Django's freedom as his reward. In turn, Schultz decides to help Django find his wife (Kerry Washington) and rescue her from human bondage as well.

Violence ensues - either sudden and quick, excruciatingly suggested or in abattoir scenes with spurts, splurges and splashes of blood. The crucial difference in Tarantino's treatment of violence is who is on the receiving end.

Much of the graphic comicbook splatter involves racist slave owners and their underlings, while some of the abrupt and swift violence comes in bounty-hunting. But when the brutality is directed at slaves, Tarantino abandons the cartoonish violence and playfulness which can be funny in its over-the-top outrageousness; instead, he wants discomforted audiences to squirm at the savagery or cruelty.

In particular, this is evident in two scenes: one has two slaves fighting until one kills the other, for the amusement of their betting owners (called mandingo fighting by Tarantino, a reference to the 1975 exploitation movie Mandingo); the second is the release of attack dogs on a defenceless slave.

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In between the outbreaks of violence are typical Tarantino scenes of people talking to one another in increasingly tense situations or for comic relief - an example of the latter being a bunch of night riders, looking like forerunners of the Ku Klux Klan, complaining about how hard it is to see while wearing hoods with eyeholes.

The music - an integral part of Tarantino movies - enhances or has fun with the content, from the opening song Django (which would have suited the animated movie Rango) to spaghetti western music by Ennio Morricone, to songs like Freedom, I Got a Name, Unchained and Ain't No Grave.

Tarantino's screenplay - surprisingly linear and straightforward - is picaresque and, thanks to a 20-minute extension of the story after a climactic confrontation, long-winded (166 minutes).

Buoying the film are its performances, especially from Waltz, who came to prominence in Inglourious Basterds. He plays an intelligent, articulate, charming, amoral good-guy version of his Nazi villain in that movie. Leonardo DiCaprio, as a wealthy, debonair Mississippi plantation and slave owner, is pretentious and smilingly sinister and sadistic.

Waltz won an Oscar nomination - albeit oddly for best supporting actor, when he's one of the two lead protagonists - while DiCaprio was undeservedly overlooked.

Foxx is effective as Django, despite having a role straitjacketing him to be grimly determined and remorselessly ruthless, while Samuel L Jackson, in his fifth Tarantino movie, plays a head house slave who's a despicable Uncle Tom monster.

The cast also includes Don Johnson as a plantation slave owner, familiar Tarantino favourites, a few cameos (Bruce Dern, Jonah Hill), and "the friendly participation" (as credited) of Franco Nero, who in 1966 starred in a spaghetti western from Sergio Corbucci called Django.

Tarantino himself shows up in an explosive scene as one of a trio of Aussie (really) cowpokes.

The movie has sparked some controversy for its frequent use of a racial epithet. While the word was commonly used, particularly in the movie's setting and context, it is still jarring - and, rightly, never becomes numbingly so through repetition.

Django Unchained has earned five Oscar nominations, including best picture and original screenplay, and should satisfy Tarantino fans - although I would rank it below Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and Inglourious Basterds.

It's certainly a cinematic event, but also overblown and overlong. Perhaps this is what happens when someone so successful and idiosyncratic can do pretty much what he wants - and you have to take the bad and the ugly with all the good.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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