Love him or hate him, you can’t deny the impact that Quentin Tarantino has had on the film industry since bursting onto the national scene in 1994 with Pulp Fiction. Always a topic of conversation with his bizarre interviews, obscure film references and even his foot fetish, Tarantino has never been one to shy away from controversy, and he certainly doesn’t shy away from anything with his new film Inglourious Basterds, an amazing World War II film with Tarantino’s unique flair, and the Tarantino film Tarantino fans have been waiting for.
While his earlier films like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and even True Romance, which he wrote but didn’t direct, certainly gave birth to QT’s unique narrative, it seems that after Pulp Fiction that he was transferring that style to other genres and types of stories. His Pulp Fiction follow-up, Jackie Brown, was the QT take on an Elmore Leonard story, Kill Bill was his martial-arts/action/revenge epic and Death Proof was his homage to the grindhouse genre. While I certainly do love all of those films, and you can easily say that Inglourious Basterds (don’t try to figure out the misspelling, because he isn’t saying) is Tarantino’s take on a World War II story, it’s QT’s first film since Pulp Fiction that truly and wholly looks and feels like a genuine Quentin Tarantino film, and god-damn is it amazing.
This film comes back to the disjointed narrative that he introduced in Pulp Fiction, as the film is told in a series of five chapters, the first of which is entitled “Once Upon a Time In… Nazi-Occupied France,” which QT was originally pondering titling the film. Here we meet Colonel Hans Landa (the AMAZING Christoph Waltz), or as he’s known throughout France, “The Jew Hunter,” as he pays a visit to the family of Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet). Those naughty LaPadite’s are harboring Jewish fugitives and Landa knows that the Dreyfus family is hiding somewhere on his property. Young Shoshana Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) manages to escape unscathed, resurfacing years later as the owner of a movie house in Paris…but we get to all of that later. After Shoshana’s escape we’re introduced to the Basterds, all lined up at attention and getting a rundown of this new team from their fearless leader, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), who is assembling this team of Jewish-American soldiers for one purpose and one purpose only: “killin’ Nazi’s.” As a part of the Basterds’ plan, they enlist the help of a German movie star/double agent Bridget von Hammersmark (the lovely Diane Kruger) to get them into a film premiere in Paris, a film that celebrates a new Nazi hero Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl) who killed hundreds of enemy soldiers in a three-day siege – a premiere that will be attended by several top-ranking Third Reich officials. As it turns out, Zoller insists on having the premiere in the quaint theater owned by a woman he’s now smitten with… Shoshana Dreyfus… who has a trick or two up her sleeve as well… and that’s about all I can say.
It was said that Tarantino had been working on this script for a decade, and with all the logistics and twists and turns that go on in this film, I can truly see why. Despite it being a war film, it’s almost more of a thriller than anything, as QT has us hanging on every well-placed (if not long-winded) word since we know that anything can happen at any moment. Sure, people will bitch that this is too long (two hours and 32 minutes) or too talky or too violent, but… have you ever SEEN a Tarantino film? Long and talky films are kind of his bag (baby) and I don’t expect anything less from QT. As far as the violence, well that’s just hogwash because as “violent” as his films are, do you really actually SEE the violence? No. His brilliant use of cutaways just shows us the aftermath of said violence it’s quite a thing to see. His script, by far the best he’s ever written, is thoroughly engaging and complex, essentially creating an alternate World War II reality where we see the likes of historical figures like Winston Churchill and The Third Reich’s Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler interacting with these fictional characters. Lets just put it this way, if World War II ended like this, kids would be glued to the history texts. As complex as the film is, it’s still fraught with the fantastic dialogue and incredible characters that makes every actor from here to Strausbourg want to work with him… and in this film in particular, that’s pretty much what we get with this outstanding ensemble cast.
Casting-wise, Tarantino has really outdone himself and, like he does in every film, manages to showcase an actor we have either previously been unaware of or might have forgotten (See: Michael Madsen, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Daryl Hannah, Zoe Bell). With Inglourious Basterds, that actor is the brilliant Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, who portrays “The Jew Hunter” Colonel Hans Landa. Waltz took home the award for Best Actor at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for his portrayal of Landa and this BETTER be just the first of many many accolades showered upon Waltz for his towering performance. People are screaming Oscar already for Waltz, and in a year where Oscar buzz has been rather absent for so late in the year, I’d have to join that screaming chorus as well, because we haven’t seen a performance this amazing all year, and I have doubts that we will see a performance equal to Waltz’s for the rest of the year. Waltz brings an air of creepy confidence to Hans Landa, a man who thinks like the Jews so he can hunt them, and every millisecond he’s on screen is a sheer spectacle to behold. The irony of Waltz’s incredible praise from this film is that the equally-amazing performance from Brad Pitt is almost unsung in comparison. I have long been a fan of Pitt, with the diversity of the projects he chooses despite being such a huge star and the incredible performances he gives, which are outshined by all the tabloid junk about Brangelina, but Aldo Raine just might be Pitt’s best performance to date. Pitt has long displayed the ability to tackle tricky dialogue (one word: Pikey…), and his turn in Basterds could be his doctoral thesis on the subject. Pitt simply shines as the exuberant hillbilly Raine, immersing himself in the Southern dialect and mannerisms that make his performance so amazing. Melanie Laurent also delivers a performance that deserves to be noticed as the sublimely confident Shoshana Dreyfus, who is fueled by the massacre of her family years ago. While her performance doesn’t seem as demanding as most here, she plays the role with a subtle authority that is fascinating to watch.
While Waltz, Pitt and Laurent are the top dogs here, this ensemble cast is loaded with immense talent and there really isn’t a weak link in the cast. Director/actor Eli Roth is wonderful as Donny Donowitz (a.k.a. Donny the Jew Bear), the crazed misfit of the group that, in certain, very subtle ways, almost plays as a Jewish, Nazi-killing version of The Gimp in Pulp Fiction. Diane Kruger is wonderful as Bridget von Hammersmark, Daniel Bruhl is great as the Nazi hero Frederick Zoller, Michael Fassbender shines as the British undercover Basterd Archie Hicox, B.J. Novak shows he’s much more than The Office as “The Little Man” Smithson Utivich and, what is one of the more unsung turns here, German actor Til Schweiger is simply wonderful as Hugo Stiglitz, a brutal Nazi that turned against the Reich and started killing Nazi’s on his own, before the Basterds found him. We also get a slew of wonderful smaller turns from the likes of Samm Levine and Paul Rust as the least-visible Basterds Hirschberg and Kagan, QT regular Julie Dreyfus (no, not Julie Louis-Dreyfus) as Francesca Mondino, Omar Doom as Basterd Omar Ulmer, August Diehl as Major Hellstrom, Sylvester Groth and Martin Wuttke as Goebbels and Hitler and even Mike Myers in a smashing cameo turn as British General Ed Fenech. This is just such an awesome ensemble cast, folks.
For all that Quentin Tarantino has done, he has never had a summer film, and Inglourious Basterds, in many ways, is Tarantino’s version of a blockbuster summer release. It also just so happens to be Quentin Tarantino’s best film to date and on the VERY short list of one of the very best films of 2009. It’s a jaw-dropping, mesmerizing war thriller that never fails to entertain on levels that both the summer movie fan and arthouse cinefile will truly appreciate.