Francois Duhamel/ TWC 2009
Francois Duhamel/ TWC 2009
Review in a Hurry: Though the misleading marketing would have you believe it's an action flick about Brad Pitt kicking Kraut kiesters from here to eternity, Quentin Tarantino's revisionist take on World War II actually unfolds more as a series of suspense-laden conversations. And he's really, really good at doing them.
The Bigger Picture: In an alternate, Tarantino-verse version of Nazi-occupied France, we follow two separate plots to kill Hitler and his top generals at the premiere of Joseph Goebbels' newest propaganda film, in which an actual German war hero (Daniel Bruhl) reenacts the events that brought him glory.
One plot involves the theater owner, a Frenchwoman formerly known as Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) hiding her true Jewish identity—and tragic backstory—beneath a pseudonym. Her plan involves locking the doors and burning the theater down.
The other involves the "Basterds" of the title, a gang of Jewish-American soldiers led by Redneck-American Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), who specialize in beating Nazis to death and removing their scalps (shown explicitly in one scene, and mostly left to your imagination thereafter). Coordinating with British intelligence, their goal is to somehow infiltrate the premiere to take out the top guys.
Hot on the trail of all involved is the creepy Nazi Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Walz), nicknamed "The Jew Hunter," who has a near-psychic ability to see through any deception, usually during the course of a seemingly low-key conversation with his intended victim.
Walz as an actor proves to be the best match for Tarantino's dialogue since Samuel L. Jackson—his ability to mix casual chitchat with a dark undercurrent of menace (in three different languages, no less) makes him a mesmerizing presence, and a near-lock for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. He's arguably the smartest onscreen psychopath since Hannibal Lecter.
Right upfront, Tarantino makes clear that what we are seeing is not reality, but is, emphatically, a movie. First, he conspicuously has two characters who are German and French, respectively, suddenly start speaking English for the benefit of the audience (though this does turn out to serve a plot point moments later). Then, he adds incongruous music choices (spaghetti-western-style score here, a David Bowie song there), a flashback hero-montage with '70s-style onscreen titles for Til Schweiger's character, periodic narration by Sam Jackson, and Mike Myers in old-man makeup as a British general.
Fans familiar with Tarantino will also recognize many of his hallmarks—the seemingly important character who gets suddenly, unexpectedly killed (even if you think you know who's gonna survive...you don't); the endless talk about cinema and pop-culture (turns out the director knows just as much about '40s German films as he does blaxploitation and kung-fu!); the Mexican stand-off; and of course the inevitable fixation on female feet. If the story itself weren't so strong, these devices might seem tedious (as they did in Death Proof), but they're only seasoning here to a far richer dish.
The rule with Tarantino movies is the reverse of the old unofficial Star Trek rule—it's the odd-numbered ones that are the best, while the evens tend to be bloated with excessive windbaggery. Inglourious Basterds may well get accused of the latter, but in fact it's the former: a long movie, yes, but one in which every suspenseful moment counts.
The 180—a Second Opinion: Those who actually lived through World War II, or had loved ones die in it, may find Tarantino's approach to be inappropriately frivolous.
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