After the mixed reaction, most of which was negative, to “Death Proof,” Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 effort in the underappreciated “Grindhouse” with fellow director Robert Rodriguez, one would hope the once universally praised writer/director would follow up with a film that would bring back the energy not seen since his greatest work – “Pulp Fiction.” With the slam of a bat and the slash of a knife, Tarantino re-ignited what was becoming a summer of extreme over hype with the release of his most entertaining film to date, “Inglourious Basterds.”
Split into five chapters, the film centers around young Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a Jewish girl who, after losing her family to the hands of the most evil officer under the Fuhrer, Col. Hans Landa (played by Austrian actor Christoph Waltz), hides out under the alias Emmanuelle Mimieux and runs a cinema where she must screen Nazi propaganda. Shosanna gets noticed by the young war hero Pvt. Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) who also happens to be the star (and title character) of a new film by Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth). Zoller procures her theater for a premiere, and upon finding out that both Landa and the majority of the high ranking officers will be attending, Shosanna plots to burn down the theater.
At the same time, the Allied forces have heard of this premiere and set up a plot of their own involving the Nazi hunting terrorists led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), aptly named the Inglourious Basterds, German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a British film critic (Michael Fassbender) and a whole lot of dynamite. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a film of this nature, a character actor’s dream ensemble in a farce in the vein of “The Dirty Dozen” and my personal favorite war film “Kelly’s Heroes.”
The film is a heck of a lot of fun. Pitt’s “leading” role results in something of a cameo, but his star power doesn’t overpower his screen presence. Raine is charismatic yet humorously slow-witted. It’s always nice to see Pitt in a role like this or in “Burn After Reading” as opposed to over-bloated films like “Benjamin Button.” While he is undeniably one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, it’s his work in character acting that proves he has talent.
If this film proves one thing, it’s that Tarantino knows how to direct the actor. The performance of Christoph Waltz is in the same category as Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight” or Javier Bardem in “No Country For Old Men.” Waltz’s Hans Landa is a complex villain, always one step ahead of his foes and throughout the film proves to be the master of control. In acting, taking control of the scene and being able to move in and out of it is key. Waltz does this with ease. In one particular scene, Landa loses his cool when he is lied to by cracking up uncontrollably. His breakdown is equally hilarious and eerie at the same time. It’d be a shame to see his lose out on a nomination at this year’s Oscars (although he won the Best Actor prize at Cannes, so hopefully that will help to secure a slot).
The rest of the cast is memorable as well, including director-turned-actor Eli Roth (“Hostel”) as the Jew Bear – a member of the Basterds who wields a baseball bat and thinks himself the Ted Williams of Nazi brain bashing. Mike Myers makes a (gasp!) hilarious cameo as a British Intelligence officer, instilling hope for a career that has been long since irrelevant. Groth is wonderful as Goebbels, painting a hilarious portrait of a psychotic egomaniac. The casting is superb, utilizing either little known actors for major roles and big names for the smaller parts.
The film isn’t perfect, but it’s that rough-around-the-edges style that makes Tarantino stand out often among his generation of filmmakers. It is deservedly his most financially successful film since “Pulp Fiction” but in terms of being a revolutionary screenwriter/director, it seems as though he’ll never make something as singularly masterful as his second feature. As entertaining as “Inglourious Basterds” may be, it never outshines “Pulp Fiction.” At this point in his career, the fans of Tarantino are getting a little nervous as to whether or not the auteur will face the Orson Welles curse.
There’s very little point to looking for meaning in a Tarantino film, and that’s not what I’m referring to as disappointing. “Pulp Fiction” was a modern masterpiece, already a staple in film studies courses and in film literature. It was his “Citizen Kane” and most likely will never be bested. However, the future of American cinema is currently obscured. It would be incredible to see a director like Tarantino actually re-invent cinema again, and while “Inglourious Basterds” isn’t a perfect film, it still shows that the auteur still has chops to bring us something we’ve never seen.
It looks as though, with “Inglourious Basterds,” Tarantino is trying to keep up his reputation as one of the most interesting and original directors of our time. With every film, Tarantino achieves something a little different. With his debut, “Reservoir Dogs,” Tarantino changed the heist film forever. With “Pulp Fiction,” he re-defined modern screenwriting. Through the “Kill Bill” films, he brought the samurai story back to cinema. In “Death Proof,” he re-imagined the B-movie genre. “Inglourious Basterds” creates a new sub-genre of the historical fiction – what could be considered “pulp” historical fiction. Whatever Tarantino comes up with next, it’ll be guaranteed, no matter your opinion on the director, to be something worthy of his reputation. Here’s hoping for another chapter in the story of American cinema, to be brought to us by Quentin Tarantino.