Inglourious Basterds

Certificate: 18
Running time: 153 mins
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Brad Pitt, Diane Kruger, Christoph Waltz
Genre: Action, War
Country: USA/Germany

We’ve come to the penultimate stop in the 20 year road trip that is Quentin Tarantino’s body of cinematic work and the “Dirty Dozen style movie” he has been talking about for years.  At one point it was touted as to star Adam Sandler and Michael Madsen to star; then it was George Clooney and Samuel L. Jackson but ultimately it would fall to Brad Pitt (Lt. Aldo Raine) to steer the Jewish elite fighting squad in their violent fight back against the Nazis during World War II.  20 Years on the QT Vol. VII is the war romp with the name of a Fred Williamson/Bo Svenson forgotten Exploitation gem…Inglourious Basterds.

There’s a lot of places you could start when looking at Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino’s long running history of borrowing from others to fund his own genius being such an obvious place to begin but it’s not the case here; not immediately anyway.  As a lifelong fan of the war movie I appreciate the conventions of the genre.  Whether it’s Anzio, Kelly’s Heroes, The Dirty Dozen, Saving Private Ryan there’s pretty much one universal binary constant; Nazis are bad, Allied Forces are good...even when they're stealing gold.  What I like about Inglourious Basterds and in particular Tarantino’s writing is how simplistic these characters are not.  Raine and his team are, undoubtedly, fighting the good fight but there is something more than slightly twisted about their personalities.  The way in which they embrace the slaughter they’ve set out to achieve is not typical of the classic hero of WW2 cinema.  Raine (as part Apache) treads that classic Western ideal of the blood thirsty “Injin” and in doing so uses the characterisation to subvert everything we know about “the hero”.  Similarly you have Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl) a charming and overtly friendly German soldier who is, of all things, a cinema lover.  The first rule of war is dehumanise the enemy.  It was at the core of Hitler’s speeches and has been at the heart of every military strategy and media covered conflict for as long as we’ve been fighting and communicating.  It’s a little more difficult to see Zoller as the enemy when he appreciates the films of Leni Riefenstahl (who had her own difficult categorisation during the war) and it’s this humanisation that’s incredibly interesting and rewarding on screen.

Visually the film tells it’s narrative and is a lot stronger and even, dare I say it, conservative than recent Tarantino offerings.  There is of course the odd moment that conflicts with this stylistic; Stiglitz’s Samuel L. Jackson narrated back story is clunky and unnecessary and a few of the flashes don’t quite work.  There are certain expectations when you come to make a WW2 film; whether you like it or not there are some you can subvert (like the hero-antihero dichotomy) and some you can’t.  The use of Samuel L. Jackson to narrate moments in the narrative jars with the films aesthetic as much as an iPhone 5 at the Battle of Little Big Horn would but for every one of those there’s a moment of beauty.  The shot through the open door at the beginning of the film when a young Shosanna is running for her life is remarkable and echoes not just Kill Bill: Vol. 2 but also The Searchers tying in that connection to the old west and the heritage of the films protagonist.

I like Brad Pitt and he’s pretty good as Aldo Raine; there are moments of brilliance that sit alongside his work in Fight Club.  It’s the strong calming Alpha influence that a film of this nature needs and he provides it admirably.  He’s wholesome and homicidal in equal measures.  Eli Roth (as Donnie Donowitz) is impressive in front of the camera and though he’s relatively untested in his role you can see how much fun he’s having cutting loose in a war movie that does not require historical accuracy over entertainment.  Fassbender, Bruhl and Kruger all give strong performances on screen but I couldn’t help but find myself longing for Christoph Waltz whenever he wasn’t on the screen.  He is simply amazing; it pains to blink when he’s centre screen such is his perfectly nuanced performance.  Hans Landa in other hands would most likely be a two dimensional maniacal villain but he’s better than that…Waltz makes him better than that and in doing so raises the quality of those who he’s in pursuit of.  His Landa is human, business-like in his dealings but has a quirky view of the world that speaks Tarantino but screams performance; the man is a powerhouse and it is he (above all else) who I’m looking forward to watching in Django Unchained.

It took a long time to actually sit down and watch Inglourious Basterds largely because I was so painfully and consistently disappointed in the output from Tarantino in the twenty-first century that I could never justify wasting the time it would take to endure another offering of ego fluffing and cinematic thievery but Inglourious Basterds is not this.  Yes it has a lot of the Tarantino trappings that sit awkwardly alongside what you’d expect from a director who has set his stall out as “genre definer” in his post low-life crime days of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown but it’s a much more focused and coordinated effort that has a firm, fixed and well thought out pathway and a richness of photography that can only be described as full fat cinema.  Granted the narrative is simplistic at best but it’s simplistic in a genre way rather than just being unchallenging.  Several scenes carry with them incredible tension and an awe that has been missing for years – it’s a welcome return and one that undoubtedly is thanks to the writer-director having mulled over and written and re-written the film over the course of a decade (much like Reservoir Dogs).  Yes the film is (of course) about thirty minutes too long as no genre romp through Nazi occupied France needs to be almost the same length as something like The Thin Red Line.  This has been gone over before and seems to be something that will eternally be part of Tarantino’s oeuvre.  Inglourious Basterds is a pleasant surprise; a slightly twisted little action baby and one that is all the more impressive for the fact that so much of it is in German (and French).  Seen as stages Tarantino is reaching his peak again.  The early years had a Californian crime trilogy that built to the excellent Jackie Brown, with Kill Bill he set himself out a new direction with genre pieces and though it faltered for a while it has seemingly come towards a pinnacle that will hopefully peak with Django before (perhaps) a new chapter and direction from a director who only seems to be happy when he’s trying to re-invent.

There are a lot of Tarantino films that I have grave issue with but this blood thirsty little Nazi hunter isn’t one of them; a good old fashioned ass stomper of a film.

22/35 Stars or 63%

Grade: C 


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