Inglourious Basterds review

Tarantino plays war games…

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Let’s talk title. Has Quentin Tarantino pushed his penchant for cine-homage to its logical conclusion and done a remake? Uh-uh.

His seventh film borrows – and Basterd-ises – its moniker from Enzo Castellari’s 1978 schlocker, but that’s it (OK, Castellari and original star Bo Svenson have cameos). It’s not the last time he bamboozles us, either. Knock on the head notions of a Dirty Dozen redux. Bullets are rationed. Explosions rare. Brad Pitt’s not in it much. None of the Basterds are.

Second scene in, Pitt’s Lt Aldo Raine gives his Jewish revenge-squad their orders: kill Nazis; 100 scalps per soldier. Then it’s 1944 and we’ve skipped years of chopping and lopping. It’s almost like a nod to Planet Terror’s infamous missing reel.

But this isn’t Grindhouse: Vol. 2. For those who found Death Proof self-indulgent, talky, crowded with film references and disconnected from reality, good news. Inglourious Basterds is self-indulgent, talky, crowded with film references and disconnected from reality… but much, much grander.

QT casts off those quickie, cheapie, throwaway vibes from the get-go. “Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France,” reads the first chapter heading, kicking in an extended Sergio Leone riff. Get used to the leisurely pace – it doesn’t let up.

Deceptively placid countryside vistas yield to claustrophobia as SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) puts the mental thumbscrews on a farmer suspected of harbouring Jews. It’s clear Landa knows the truth long before it actually emerges, but he keeps on turning up the heat. Twenty minutes of squirming tension… and then horror erupts. It’s a killer opener – nervy but funny (wait for the pipe), unhurried but taut. It potently introduces one key character (Landa) and cooks up tragic motivation for another – brunette farmer’s daughter Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), running for her life as the episode ends.

It’s typical for Tarantino to shake up a stalled actor, to gift them a role reminding us why they used to be cool: John Travolta, Pam Grier, Kurt Russell, David Carradine. Here, in the movie’s spirit of subversion, he reverses tack and breaks out fresh stars.

You’d scarcely know it from the publicity, but Laurent is the film’s de facto protagonist, surfacing three years after her escape as the now-blonde, payback-plotting owner of a Parisian cinema. The French actress sinks conviction into her character’s quiet cunning and cool resolve; she’s the best dye-job WW2 heroine since Black Book’s Carice van Houten. Sucks ciggies like a classic femme fatale, too.

Really, though, the headline story is Waltz – even the huffiest critics at this year’s Cannes didn’t begrudge him his Best Actor win. The picture’s his from that opening grilling; he follows through with further delicious displays of cruelty, charm and shameless self-interest – and in a variety of languages, no less. He’s a rival to Jules as QT’s greatest bad boy. Just pray Hollywood doesn’t turn the Austrian thesp into a vanilla villain, hissing threats to Bruce Willis down a walkie-talkie…

Waltz keeps the campery in check, but there are overcooked caricatures elsewhere. Martin Wuttke’s hysterical Hitler is more Chaplin than chilling. Mike Myers misjudges his tally-ho British general. Pitt is a cartoon Clark Gable. Is he spoofing his own megawattage? Maybe, but the mannerisms – jutting chin, Southern drawl – labour the laughs. He has some meaty speeches, yet his scant screentime isn’t a huge regret.

Some will cavil more over the lack of action; although when it comes, it’s a kick – notably a bar shoot out (sudden, rapid carnage after a marathon dialogue session) that freezes on – what else? – a Mexican stand-off. Other Tarantino trademarks are alive and well too: an eclectic, electric soundtrack made from other soundtracks (The Alamo, Cat People, Ennio Morricone) and a spot of footfetishism, played sexy and sinister.

But the most pressing question is: does Eli Roth ruin it? Luckily, Pitt’s right-hand Basterd isn’t given enough rope to hang himself. The Hostel man is even a bit of a hoot come the cinema-set climax, where the many threads are gathered for a fiery final reckoning.

By now you’ll be aware that the resolution is pure pulp fiction. But if the historical liberties outrage or offend, just keep telling yourself: it’s only a movie-movie. One that’s big, brash and unpredictable, enriched by QT’s love of actors, love of language and love of cinema: its power to influence, illuminate, exhilarate. Inglourious Basterds builds a world, shakes up a genre, plays by its own rules.

Not convinced? Then ask yourself which you’d prefer: to slog through the by-the-history-book reverence and respectability of Defiance and Valkyrie, or to see Mélanie Laurent dressed in red, wreathed in smoke, backed perversely yet perfectly by David Bowie’s ‘Putting Out The Fire’? Thought so…

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