Quentin Tarantino is one of those great directors who offers up a new surprise with every film he makes. He’s constantly rewriting the genres he chooses to explore by showing them in a way we haven’t quite seen before. With “Reservoir Dogs,” he changed how we perceived heist films. With “Pulp Fiction,” he delivered an epic that rewrote the book on crime dramas. He even dabbled in revenge with his two-parter “Kill Bill.” Now he tackles one of the most classic and iconic of genres: the western.
His new film, “Django Unchained,” takes place in the South in 1858. It revolves around a slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), who is freed by a bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), in order to help him find and identify his latest bounty. The two form a friendship that has them partnering up when the deed is done. Django learns everything about being a bounty hunter, including how to handle a gun, a skill that will come in handy on his next endeavor: locating his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), and rescuing her from her owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Dr. Schultz, feeling a kind of responsibility for having freed Django, agrees to help him in this daunting task that will require a great deal of skill and cunning.
This being a Tarantino film, you know not to expect a typical John Wayne-esque western. For him, it has to be big, bloody, ambitious, and way over the top, areas that he succeeds in for the most part. However, it’s a bit disappointing to have to say that this doesn’t quite stand up to most of Tarantino’s other brilliant work. It’s a fine film, but it’s certainly a step down from his previous work, “Inglourious Basterds,” a masterpiece that was his twist on the classic war film.
Most of what makes his films so great lies right in the screenplay, the foundation of the film itself. Reading one of his screenplays is like reading a novel with a fascinating story and characters, one that has you turning pages in anticipation to see what will happen next. The screenplay for “Django” has a semi-engaging story, but it didn’t exactly leap off the page like most of his previous films. This is the feeling that accompanies watching the actual film: It’s semi-engaging, but it never fully grabs hold of you in the usual manner that a Tarantino film does.
Another thing he is well known for is his excellent dialogue. His “Pulp Fiction” remains one of the most quotable movies of all time. In fact, the film won him his one and only Oscar so far for Best Original Screenplay. “Django” has a fair amount of good dialogue, but it doesn’t have as much that is memorable. In other words, don’t expect this film to be quoted as much as his other works.
It should also be noted that this is his longest film yet. If you’ve followed Tarantino’s career, you know he’s one for making really long films. “Pulp Fiction,” “Jackie Brown,” and “Inglourious Basterds” all run about two and a half hours, and “Kill Bill” was so long that it had to be split into two movies. “Django” runs about 160 minutes. While a lot of it flies by, particularly the climax, there are parts of it that feel stretched out, which is due in large part to the lack of engrossing dialogue that usually fuels a Tarantino epic.
What really helps the film along are the great performances, particularly those of Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson. Waltz, who won an Oscar for his amazing portrayal of Colonel Landa in “Inglourious Basterds,” brings the same magnetic charm to his bounty hunter character. His character is a German who finds slavery to be rather silly, which makes it interesting to see how he reacts to those people who find his treatment of Django rather odd.
Dicaprio gives an outstanding performance as the film’s villain, Calvin Candie. I don’t recall having ever seen DiCaprio in the role of a villain before, making this a rather big treat. His character has charm as well, but his evil side shows just as brightly. This is paired well with Jackson’s small, but memorable, role as Calvin’s houseslave Stephen. He actually brings a lot of comic relief to the film, particularly when he first sees Django riding into Calvin’s plantation on a horse, something that many people back then found intolerable.
Even though “Django Unchained” is one of Tarantino’s weaker efforts, the great thing is that even his weaker efforts are better than most people’s strongest efforts. There are moments of greatness sprinkled throughout the film. There are moments that are made for sheer entertainment, moments that are so incredibly over the top that you can’t look away. This is Tarantino’s unique take on the western and it’s worth seeing for that alone. While it may not be another great film like we were hoping for, it still manages to be one heck of a trip. 3/4 stars.
Starts today in theaters everywhere.
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