Screenwriters: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger, Til Scheiwger
Running time: 153 mins
A foray into war was inevitable for Quentin Tarantino with its twin virtues of extreme violence and locker-room banter fitting neatly with his trademark sensibility. Still, QT fans may be surprised by Inglourious Basterds, his long-gestating WWII caper which has been loosely described as The Dirty Dozen with a post-modern twist. In fact it bears little comparison to the 1967 classic, with the titular gang (led by Brad Pitt) almost reduced to a supporting role in the story of a Jewish girl (French thesp Mélanie Laurent) seeking revenge for the massacre of her family. It's more akin to Kill Bill except that those films were much bloodier and, in the end, more accomplished.
Just as Kill Bill: Vol. Two echoed Tarantino's love of spaghetti westerns, so does Inglorious Basterds, except that it's slightly jarring within the context of World War II. That said, the opening scene is perhaps the most effective of the film, raising anticipation to artistic heights. Tarantino doffs his hat to director Sergio Leone as a French peasant catches sight of a Nazi cavalcade on the horizon and hurries his daughters inside. The danger is emphasised in a dramatic cut to extreme close-up, picking up the sweat on his brow. Clearly the man has something to hide and, in the course of a perversely long-winded conversation with Colonel Hans Lander (Christoph Waltz espousing classic Tarantino patois in both German and English), it becomes apparent that this 'something' is a family of Jews beneath the floorboards.
In the ensuing hail of bullets, Shoshanna (the quietly expressive Laurent) is cast as the heroine, running over the hills covered in blood (à la Uma Thurman's ill-fated Bride). Meanwhile, in another chapter, the Inglourious Basterds - a band of Jewish American soldiers - are busy hacking up Nazis and scalping them Apache-style for terror purposes. Apart from a couple of wince-inducing moments, there isn't too much in-your-face violence. The emphasis is on the verbal rather than physical interactions and there's a cartoonish feel to the Basterds that's more Bash Street Kids than Dirty Dozen. As Lt. Raine, Pitt seems more conscious of it than anyone else, delivering lines with a permanent half-wink to the audience and an overly tuned Southern drawl. It grates on the ear at times along with the super-amplified incidental music.
The storylines entwine two years later when Shoshanna agrees to host a premiere for a Nazi propaganda film at her own cinema. Unbeknownst to her, the Basterds prepare to crash the party and blow up Hitler, which threatens to derail her own revenge plot. To accommodate them all, Tarantino must completely rewrite history, but since the film wears its fairytale credentials on its sleeve, that's not a huge problem. In fact the endgame provides a great gothic spectacle. The more nagging discrepancy is in the violent mood swings between chapters; Tarantino going from the melodrama of a confrontation between Shoshanna and Lander to the downright spoofery of Mike Myers imitating a senior British officer 'what-what'. Because of all the joshing around, the tension of the opener is never matched, instead dissipating at vital moments and making long scenes feel too drawn out.
However, the weakness of the film is also its strength. Instead of thrilling us with OTT chases and explosions, Tarantino invites us to hang out and chill with a colourful array of characters. Given his flair for dialogue and taste for black humour, it's no hardship. Diane Kruger is on fine form as a Dietrich-type double agent and Michael Fassbender (Hunger) proves again why he's an actor to watch. He's one of the few who manages to walk the line between comedy and drama with expert balance. Another is German actor Christoph Waltz who relishes all of his carefully staged one-on-ones and easily upstages Pitt. And as Shoshanna, Laurent is memorable for lending a touch of soul amidst the cartoonish chaos of war. Basterds is not as the closing dialogue suggests, a masterpiece, but even an off-day Tarantino can still impose shock and awe.
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