It should be no surprise by now that Quentin Tarantino sets out to subvert expectations. From Reservoir Dogs onward, both his personal directorial projects and the healthy collection of screenplays he’s generated (True Romance being a notable highpoint), Tarantino has feverishly cribbed from the cinematic playground he has irrevocably influenced. This duality is immediately evident in Inglourious Basterds, his much talked-about, long gestating (some would say in pre-production) WWII “men-on-a-mission” project.
The opening scenes pulsate with a masterful tension recalling the instant-classic opening of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West, but then smoothly settle into Tarantino’s signature dialogue, the transition losing none of the edge-of-your seat build-up. Tarantino revels in reference but also aches with the desire to tell his own story. If Basterds is any indication, he’s stepped up his game, delivering his best film since the reverentially regarded Pulp Fiction.
Despite the clever campaign of misdirection mounted prior its release, Basterds is an action film in name only, containing a few properly gruesome scenes but never approaching the acrobatic massacre of Kill Bill’s House of Blue Leaves sequence. In fact, the film bears more in common with Volume 2 of the epic, as well as the pervasively taut mood of Jackie Brown, probably his most mature film. The entirety of Basterds could be described as a series of power struggles conveyed through deviously clever dialogue.
There is a unifying story, one linking Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), the lone Jewish survivor of the opening scene, Nazi colonel Hans Landa (the astounding Christoph Waltz, hopefully assuring himself an Oscar nom if not an outright win), and a group of Jewish-American soldiers led by Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, showing off blistering comic timing). As the Basterds lay bloody siege to the Nazi-crawling country land of France, circa 1941 to 1944, Shosanna hides out under a false identity while manning a theater in occupied Paris.
She avoids the advances of inopportune war hero Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), whose naive desire to impress her leads to the theater serving as the prime location for the premiere of a new propaganda film based on Zoller’s exploits. Seeing her chance at taking out the Nazi high command in attendance, Shosanna and her lover Marcel hatch a plan for sweet revenge. With the Basterds homing on the premiere with help of German movie-star/British double agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), the stories converge in a literally explosive finale.
Tarantino’s film comes armed to the teeth with a ready-and-able cast, but Pitt and Christoph Waltz, dare I say it, waltz away with the film. As Basterd leader Aldo Raine, Pitt permanently puffs out his chin and chest and delivers a swaggering larger-than-life performance, smirking and headbutting through the film. Waltz has a far more difficult role to play and it is an accolade to both Tarantino’s writing and Watlz’s performance that he creates an unforgettable character as the amoral, sly and consistently heartless Colonel Hans Landa, nicknamed The Jew Hunter. Landa is extremely intelligent, proficient in multiple languages but most dexterous in the skill of self-preservation, willing even to change the course of history in order to save himself.
Nevermind the war epic, Tarantino’s latest toys with history but does not do so for the sake of parody but rather as a reasonable and oft-plausible alternative. Inglourious Basterds is a triumph on many levels, never more than verbally, a return to form for the auteur whose sharp dialogue took a detour with the action heavy Kill Bill and the self-indulgent Death Proof. A fast-paced, acerbically funny, gloriously bloody war story, Basterds is one of the best films of the year and represents a new level of career achievement for Tarantino as a filmmaker.
Starring: Brad Pitt, Eli Roth, Melanie Laurent, Diane Kruger, Christoph Waltz, Daniel Bruhl
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Runtime: 153 Minutes
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
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