Oh boy oh boy, you can tell right from the opening credits that it’s a Quentin Tarantino joint. The classic 1950s-era Columbia Pictures logo! The bright red credits that look like they were lifted from a Budd Boetticher western! (Comanche Station, maybe?) The theme song licensed from a spaghetti western! Really, it’s an overwhelming amount of movie buff . . . “Woot!”
While this stuff is cool—I will cheerfully admit to thoroughly geeking out on the Lilian Harvey reference (and song) in Inglourious Basterds—it’s just the icing on the cake. Kill Bill works because the Bride’s revenge is commensurate to her suffering. Inglourious Basterds succeeds because the story’s audacious, history-altering premise is fulfilled with one stunning set piece after another. Django Unchained, in which Tarantino tries to do with the American experience of slavery what he did with World War II, falls flat because the elements are so mismatched.
The story is about Django (Jamie Foxx), an ex-slave who partners up with a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz). They make a lot of money and kill a lot of white people, something the hero finds, understandably, quite satisfying. Eventually, they hatch an elaborate plot to rescue Django’s wife (Kerry Washington) from “Candieland,” a particularly horrible Mississippi plantation presided over by a flamboyant, self-styled Southern gentleman (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his right-hand man, an Uncle Tom (who looks like Uncle Ben) named Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).
Let’s get the language complaint out of the way first: Django is indeed wall-to-wall “n” word. It’s said so often that you’ll mostly stop noticing it. (From time to time the word’s viciousness registers, usually when some particularly odious character hurls it at the hero.) And, yes, gunshots result in the kind of ridiculous, blood-spurting wounds that turned most of Kill Bill so grotesquely red. Neither issue is new to Tarantino, or problematic.
Django Unchained fails because it’s epic-length without being epic in scope. While Tarantino does detail many of the horrors of slavery, they seem disconnected from the film’s standard rescue-revenge plot. (One of the smarter things Tarantino did in Inglourious Basterds was to avoid a side trip to an actual Nazi death camp.) At one point, in fact, it seems like there isn’t going to be any grand showdown and spectacular bloody battle. Here, Tarantino has written himself into a corner, and the killing that propels the film’s final act is out of nowhere and out of character.
Still, there’s plenty of cinematic pleasure in Django: Foxx is a totally convincing cowboy; DiCaprio, clearly enjoying himself, is a wonderfully cartoonish villain; Waltz is a likable, matter-of-fact killer with a conscience; and the film has the kind of clever cameos movie buffs can geek out on. (My favorites were Bruce Dern as a mean old slaver and Tom Wopat as a U.S. Marshal.)
Alas, sometimes a revenge actioner is just a revenge actioner.