Quentin Tarantino is certainly our most exuberant current auteur, and certainly no other director takes such extravagant delight in the least respectable subgenres of exploitation films. His latest feature, “Django Unchained,” an over-the-top celebration of both the spaghetti western and the Blaxploitation flick, is a very R-rated epic peppered with equal parts brutal violence and raucous, adolescent humor.
From the retro, red opening credits done to Argentian composer Luis Bacalov’s original theme song to the 1966 “Django,” Tarantino is playing an association game. There are so many inside references to a genre younger American moviegoers simply don’t know, that it’s likely most audiences won’t get everything that’s being thrown at them. No matter. “Django Unchained” is a wildly entertaining, high velocity theme park ride of a movie, which doesn’t stop to trouble itself over minor matters of taste or decorum.
Jamie Foxx plays Django, a slave in the antebellum South, freed by a (stay with me here) German former dentist and current bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who believes Django can identify his latest quarry. It turns out that Django has natural talent as a bounty hunter, and Schultz ultimately offers him a deal: If Django partners up with him for the winter, he’ll help him rescue Django’s wife (Kerry Washington) from a slave owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) who actually calls his plantation Candyland. Schultz tells Django the legend of Brunhilde and Siegfried, and that tells us much of what we need to know. This an epic quest story, as much as it’s a riot-inciting slavery revenge fantasy.
Christoph Waltz is one of the modern screen’s most hypnotic actors, and after a brief succession of disappointments following his explosive American debut in Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” he’s back in full force. On the side of the angels this time, Waltz’s Schultz is both funny and dangerous—a more benign take on Hans Landa. Foxx turns in a disciplined and risky performance. Django may seem like a nonentity initially, but as the character finds himself, onscreen alchemy occurs. He starts acting like a movie hero and Foxx’s screen presence expands like it’s suddenly taken steroids.
The real star of any Tarantino movie, however, tends to be Tarantino. Directing from his own, typically quirky script, Tarantino’s gifts and excesses are on full display. Photographed by three time Oscar®-winner Robert Richardson, this is an exceptionally handsome-looking movie. Tarantino and Richardson mix up visual styles periodically, sometimes deliberately conjuring a grainer, seventies look, sometimes almost turning into “Gone with the Wind.” On thankfully few occasions they make use of the fast zoom to a close-up, an obsolete and unlamented hallmark of sixties Italian moviemaking.
As is typical in any Tarantino movie, the music is eclectic, including Bacalov and spaghetti western musical icon Ennio Morricone, who scored the Leone movies, and “Two Mules for Sister Sara,” some of which is featured here. But he also throws in some Johnny Cash, Jim Croce, Richie Havens and James Brown with 2PAC, along with “Fur Elise” and Verdi’s “Requiem.”
Tarantino is simultaneously praised and condemned for his approach to historical subject matter, which in “Inglourious Basterds” actually included rewriting the end of World War II. He is clearly not trying to make an authentic document about slavery in America here, although he also does not sugarcoat or excuse the institution in any way. Slavery is presented as an atrocious practice, as represented by bullwhips, dogs and branding irons. The slave owners in the movie are at best insensitive and indifferent, at worst sadistic, cruel and even vicious.
The violence is brutal, bloody and completely over-the-top. Tarantino has taken a leaf from Robert Rodriguez here, with so much Max Factor blood exploding from bullet wounds that a real human body would been exsanguinated instantly. The spaghetti westerns of the sixties in fact were not that graphically bloody, although the body counts could get pretty high. However, the late sixties also saw Sam Peckinpah’s landmark western, “The Wild Bunch,” which featured extensive use of spurting blood in slow motion, shocking to audiences at the time, and Tarantino is never influenced by just one thing.
Even audiences familiar with spaghetti westerns are likely to be primarily familiar with Sergio Leone’s “Man with No Name” movies that turned Clint Eastwood from a supporting actor on a routine TV western series (“Rawhide”) to an international movie star. The genre was bigger than that. Franco Nero starred as Django in the 1966 movie of the same name directed by Sergio Corbucci, a favorite of Quentin Tarantino’s. “Django” spawned several sequels and spinoffs, without Nero, and was so popular overseas that uncountable rip-offs appeared with the name “Django” in the title that had nothing to do with the character.
Tarantino is addicted to stunt casting, and he indulges himself here with a vengeance. Russ Tamblyn (“Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “Peyton Place,” “West Side Story”) appears as “Son of a Gunfighter” along with his daughter Amblyn, who appears masked and is billed as “Daughter of Son of a Gunfighter.” TV faces, such as Michael Parks, now a longtime veteran of the Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez camp, in addition to Don Johnson, Lee Horsley and Tom Wopat appear, along with seventies and eighties movie actors like James Remar and Dennis Christopher and perennial tough guy actor Don Stroud. Bruce Dern, who appeared in almost every western made in the sixties, is in and out so fast if you blink you’ll miss him. There are some modern stars. Samuel L. Jackson is nearly unrecognizable as a house slave with an unusual relationship with Calvin Candie and Jonah Hill appears in a thoroughly ridiculous and very funny cameo. And Franco Nero, the original Django, also appears briefly (the credits say “with the friendly participation of Franco Nero”).
“Django Unchained” clocks in at a bladder-unfriendly 165 minutes, although there isn’t a dull moment in it. “Django Unchained” also comes by its R-rating honestly. This is a Tarantino movie, after all, and unlike his counterpart Robert Rodriguez, he doesn’t do “Spy Kids.” The Smurf and Muppet crowd should stay home. The language alone is thoroughly R-rated, including liberal use of a certain racial epithet starting with the letter “n” that gets people so upset I’m actually not allowed to even quote it here. It should be noted that for the most part it is used by mid-19th century white characters who probably wouldn’t have called a black person anything else. But the bottom line here is that one of our most interesting directors has made a movie that will excite and appall, intrigue and outrage, and most of all entertain. This is one not to miss.