As with all of his films, Inglourious Basterds doesn’t take place in any world we would recognize, but in the head of Quentin Tarantino, where a fevered imagination dreams of countless films, from the highbrow to the lowest of the low. In a sense, he doesn’t create new works but mash-ups, regurgitations of everything he has seen in altered ways. In some cases, such as Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, he took the memes and tropes of crime noir and reinvented them, making him the most audacious American filmmaker in action.
I stand behind no one in my admiration for Pulp Fiction (it’s where I get my nom de blog), but like many, I’ve found his post-PF work–Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, and Death Proof, to be a squandering of his talent. Instead of continuing the exciting work of his first two pictures, he’s become hermetically sealed in his own world of hack cinema, reproducing what he loved as a child, like Miss Havisham preserving her wedding cake. To be sure, each of these pictures had a lot to admire, particularly Kill Bill, but it was akin to Picasso spray-painting a subway car.
I regret to say that Inglourious Basterds is another film in this decline. I did like it overall, and if this were a film made by someone completely unknown I’d say “the kid’s got something,” but nothing exists in a vacuum and there’s no mistaking that it was made by Tarantino. I give it a thumbs up on its amusement park thrills, but a thumbs down when considering what it could have been.
Of course Tarantino can’t make a straight World War II film. Instead he has crafted a spaghetti Western as war film, with a touch of the grindhouse he so loves. We know that right away with the Ennio Morricone music and a title card reading “Once upon a time…” a sure allusion to Sergio Leone. The prologue takes us to the French countryside, which if you squint could double for Nebraska, and a family who happens to be hiding a family of Jews. A contingent of German soldiers arrive, led by Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, a sure Best Supporting Actor nominee), who is known as the “Jew Hunter.” It is here that Tarantino, somewhat ham-fistedly, begins his tale of revenge of Jews against Nazis.
The film is told in chapters, which make abrupt leaps in the story. We go from that French countryside, where one Jew escapes, to the Basterds themselves, a guerilla unit of Jewish-American soldiers, led by Lt. Aldo Raine, played amusingly by Brad Pitt. The character’s name is a reference to 1950′s character actor Aldo Ray, and Tarantino gives Pitt a scar around his neck (Eastwood in Hang ‘em High?) and a Li’l Abner accent. That the character comes from Tennessee, Tarantino’s birthplace, is certainly no accident, as Raine is a foxy fellow who never fails to spin a clever aphorism or get the better of his enemy. Pitt certainly seems to enjoy himself, taking special delight in pronouncing Nazi as if it rhymes with “patsy.”
The Basterds are a gang of vicious thugs, including a psychopathic German and a Red Sox fan with the moniker of “the Bear Jew” (played by Eli Roth, who should stick to making vile horror films–he’s no actor). Roth’s method of execution is to use a baseball bat to the melon of his victim (Robert DeNiro’s Al Capone in The Untouchables?). Pitt has charged his Semitic squad with collecting as many Nazi scalps as they can (Raine is part “injun,” and the Germans know him as “Aldo the Apache”). I’m not Jewish, so I have no cultural response to seeing Jews portrayed as sadistic brutes, but I suppose if Spielberg could do it in Munich Tarantino has a right to.
All too soon we leave the Basterds (the film seems to flag whenever Pitt is away) to meet the girl who escaped in the first scene, her identity changed and running a cinema in occupied Paris. Played by the excellent Melanie Laurent, she’s reminiscent of a Hitchcock blonde–icily sexy. A young German war hero (Daniel Brühl) takes a shine to her, and since he’s the star of a new propaganda film (he’s the German Sgt. York) he arranges for her theater to host the premiere of the film. Revenge immediately pops into her head.
But, as the commercials says, that’s still not all! We then meet some British (including a heavily made up Rod Taylor as Winston Churchill and a what-the-fuck? cameo by Mike Myers) planning to blow up the theater the night of the premiere. They enlist a suave film critic, Martin Fassbender, (Tarantino sucking up to the scribblers who will pass judgment on him?) to join up with the Basterds and a German movie star (Diane Kruger, another Hitchcock blonde) to infiltrate the German high command. So we essentially have Tarantino laying plot upon plot, an extreme case of overkill that bloats the film to two-and-a-half hours.
And it is a long film. There are several times during the film I got the fidgets. Tarantino has a difficult time with all the languages being spoken. There’s a restaurant scene that has German being translated into French with English subtitles. Aside from being a cinematic Rosetta Stone for future linguists, this was stultifyingly inept. When Kruger and Fassbinder meet up in a tavern, a scene that must last half an hour, he has the characters playing twenty questions far longer than anyone can tolerate. Tarantino has never been one to follow the rules set down by Robert McKee–the scene in Pulp Fiction where Travolta and Jackson actually stop the plot to debate whether a foot massage is cheating is famous for this–but in Pulp Fiction it was funny and entertaining, not so in Inglourious Basterds.
But toward the last third of the film I got into it, and enjoyed the ending, which rewrites history and has Pitt delivering a coup de grace that will rank among the great ending scenes in film history. All of the classic Tarantino quirks are on display: foot fetishism, the Mexican standoff (including two characters debating just what exactly constitutes a Mexican standoff), the idiosynchratic score (this will be the first and presumably last World War II film to contain a David Bowie song), brief voice roles by Samuel L. Jackson and Harvey Keitel, and winking at the audience stuff like identifying the Nazi bigwigs with a kind of telestrator. Tarantino, like the blowhard at the bar who knows everything, also makes sure to include as many film references as he can, whether it’s dropping names like G.W. Pabst and Emil Jannings or having his British character refer to “Jerry” like they were right out of some forties war flick.
I’ve been kind of long-winded, so let me sum up by saying Inglorious Basterds gets a solid grade of B from me. It’s a lot of fun, but there are plenty of places you can get up to go to the bathroom. I’m still waiting for Tarantino to fulfill his early promise, but perhaps he’s not interested in doing that, and instead is satisfied in these well-wrought doodles.