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Django Unchained review: Quentin Tarantino is a director off the leash

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Director: Quentin Tarantino; Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino; Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L Jackson, Walton Goggins; Running time: 165 mins; Certificate: 18


Quentin Tarantino is a director off the leash and at the peak of his powers, colourfully demonstrated in this pseudo-spaghetti western starring Jamie Foxx. The original Django (Franco Nero directed by Sergio Corbucci in 1966) also appears briefly, but this is a film that cannot be compared to any single other because it borrows from so many, and yet it bears the unmistakable brand of its maker.

It's also troubling. Like Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds, revenge is the driving force. Only this time slave owners are the target, and Tarantino treats this difficult subject as a joyous exploitation trip that takes Django across the Deep South to liberate his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).

Django is freed from his own shackles by German bounty hunter Schultz, played by Christoph Waltz (Basterds's Hans Landa) with a delightfully lofty sense of mischief. He poses as a dentist, driving a wagon topped with a giant, spring-mounted molar (like the Old West equivalent of a nodding dog) in one of many comic flourishes that throw the inhumanity into sharp relief.

Schultz enjoys scandalising the locals as he rides from town to town partnered by a black man, and Django, understandably, develops a taste for a line of work that allows him to kill white folks and get paid for it. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the worst of them, Calvin Candie, with the sort of relish that has him literally licking his fingers in one scene.

Django Unchained, Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx
It's a teasing, action-packed ride to the whimsically named Candyland where Broomhilda is kept for "comfort". Being the ostentatious character that he is, Schultz devises an elaborate plan to secure her freedom by posing as a buyer with a special interest in 'Mandingos' - slaves who are reared to fight to the death (in a reference to the 1975 film Mandingo).

Candie gets his kicks from the blood sport which is vividly portrayed - without much graphic detail - in one of the 'theatre' scenes that build to the finale. As in Basterds, Tarantino creates a stage for the actors where the main action is verbal and the players are armed with ornate dialogue. But it's the serious intent behind the wordplay that makes the film bristle with energy.

Django ends up sidelined, however, because like many a western hero, he prefers to let his guns do the talking. It's unfortunate for Foxx, who is easily outshined by the supporting cast. Samuel L Jackson pitter-patters all over him as Candie's weasel of servant, keen to put Django in his place.

There is free and easy use of the n-word on both sides of the racial divide, but that should be no more disturbing than the sight of men muzzled and shackled like livestock. If Tarantino is riling the audience, it means the climactic showdown offers a bigger release. Naturally, it gets messy, with spurting fountains of blood that remind you this isn't real life, much less a historical document, and a thumping hip-hop bassline (in a wildly eclectic soundtrack) to boost the adrenalin rush.

Ultimately, it's a surprising act of resistance by Schultz that has the most devastating impact and seems to relate Tarantino's feeling that being cool and clever is fine, but when justice absolutely, positively needs doing, shooting your mouth off just isn't enough. Whether that's right or wrong doesn't matter, because Tarantino is aiming for the gut, and the sheer audacity just blows you away.


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