Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez joined forces for the faux double bill “Grindhouse” just a few years ago. Now they find themselves with separate and very different releases going head to head at this weekend’s box office. Tarantino’s serving up “Inglourious Basterds” (opening August 21 throughout San Diego) and Rodriguez delivers another one of his family films “Shorts” (Opening August 21 throughout San Diego).
Since I recently ran into trouble for misspelling a word let me be clear that the spelling or should I say misspelling of the title is deliberate on Tarantino’s part. “Inglourious Basterds” comes from the semi-literate officer played by Brad Pitt. The misspelling might also be to distance his film from the 1978 “The Inglorious Bastards” (correctly spelled) that was also about a group of soldiers – these were headed for military prison – who end up performing a dangerous mission in Nazi-occupied Europe.
“Inglourious Basterds” takes its cue from films Tarantino loves (nothing new there). But this time around he mixes anti-establishment war films like “The Dirty Dozen” and “Kelly’s Heroes” with Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns to deliver a spaghetti war drama that rewrites history.
An Ennio Morricone music cut opens the film and sets the tone of both grand homage and sly parody, the tone he often set for Leone’s westerns. A title card informs us that this is indeed Chapter One (unlike “Kill Bill” we are starting at the beginning and moving in a fairly linear forward fashion). The Title of this chapter reads, “Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied France” (something Tarantino had considered for the title of the film as a whole). This provides the back-story for the film although we don’t yet realize that this is the back-story and initially think this will be the main story.
Tarantino introduces us to a French farmer and his daughters. A group of Nazi soldiers arrive and the father is questioned by a droll, chatty Nazi officer named Hans Landa (relative newcomer Christoph Waltz in a scene stealing performance). Landa interrogates – ever so politely but with continual implied threats – the farmer about harboring Jews. Landa makes like he’s just there to chat and have a glass of milk. He asks if he can continue the discussion in English since his French is not very good. This proves a clever means of getting out of the subtitles but in a manner that also serves the plot (he suspects there are Jews in the house and that they don’t speak English). The slow interrogation – filled with polite asides – builds tension. It’s also a brilliant introduction to Landa, a character that never ceases to fascinate or delight us in perverse ways. For instance, when the farmer says he knows nothing except for some rumors, Landa is pleased and says, “I love rumors, facts can be so misleading.” This opening also lays the groundwork for a revenge tale that never reaches the heights – or depths – of The Bride’s “roaring rampage of revenge” in “Kill Bill.”
The scene then shifts to the Americans for Chapter Two: Inglourious Basterds. We meet Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), and for anyone who’s a fan of 1940s Hollywood war films the name will call to mind B-movie actor Aldo Ray who played many an inglorious bastard. But Pitt’s character is also meant to recall Lee Marvin’s tough major from “The Dirty Dozen.” Pitt’s not quite that good but he’s close. The main difference is that Marvin played it straight and Pitt always seems to be smirking because he knows his performance is part-parody. But like Marvin’s character, Pitt’s Raine is an officer who has little respect for rules and regulations of any kind.
Raine informs his group of Jewish soldiers that they will be going out to kill Nazis and they better be ready to be cruel to the Nazis. Boasting some Apache blood in his veins, Raine also demands 100 Nazi scalps from each of his men. “We’re in the business of killing Nazis,” Raine says, “and business is booming.”
Star players on his team are Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), a German with a lethal distaste for Nazis, and The Bear Jew (a miscast Eli Roth), who knocks the Nazis out of the park with a baseball bat. Seeing these two men in action against the Nazis is a sight to behold and to cheer for. So forget “Defiance” with its tale of Jewish resistance, here we get Jews who really dish it out to the Nazis and get some good old fashion revenge on them.
By the time we get to Chapter Three, the film is into the planning stages for both an assassination attempt on the Nazi top brass and a young woman’s plan to avenge the death of her family (now the back story of the first scene comes into play). And in fitting fashion, Tarantino brings everything together for a climax that occurs in a movie theater with a piece of Nazi propaganda (created for Tarantino by Eli Roth) as the centerpiece of the evening’s events.
There are times – many in fact – when “Inglourious Basterds” kicks ass. It’s not really an action film (there aren’t enough action scenes to qualify as that) yet Tarantino makes us feel like it’s an action film. When there is violence it’s excessive, brutal, and graphic. But like the spaghetti westerns, there’s a lot of talk as characters square off and assess each other through extended dialogue scenes before trying to kill each other. Like Shakespeare’s Mercutio, Tarantino and his characters love to hear themselves talk. So there’s a lot of dialogue in this film but it’s raucously fun dialogue since talk is frequently the way characters size each other up and strut their stuff.
But the main weakness in “Inglourious Basterds” is the supporting cast. Tarantino normally packs his film with a brilliant supporting cast, even people with a single line prove memorable. But here, only Waltz, Pitt, and Schweiger make a real impression. The women – Diane Krueger as a German actress and Melanie Laurent as the vengeful French resistance fighter – are lovely but bland. You don’t feel that depth of casting that has marked every other Tarantino film to date. Unlike “The Dirty Dozen,” “Inglourious Basterds” doesn’t give us a whole unit of memorable soldiers. Once you see “The Dirty Dozen” you’ll always remember John Cassavetes or Jim Brown or Telly Savalas because the actors made the parts vivid. In “Inglourious Basterds,” everyone except Hugo and The Bear Jew blur together.
Yet Tarantino packs his film with so much audacious fun that you can’t help walking out of the theater energized and delighted. Now some are likely to take offense at Tarantino’s cavalier approach to history or to his graphic violence or to what may be interpreted as a lack of respect for those who suffered in the war. But Tarantino’s only interested in making pop entertainment. There’s no hidden or overt social message here. This film exists only in the realm of other films. Tarantino is not interested in referencing real history but rather cinematic history as he draws on other films more readily than he does on facts from World War II. In fact facts mean so little to him that he casually rewrites history when it pleases him. So I think you have to take “Inglourious Basterds” on its own terms and appreciate it for what it is – a damn fine and fun piece of pulp entertainment. Plus you absolutely have to see this film if only for Waltz’ performance as Landa – it’s the most inspired, carefully nuanced and perfectly pitched performance of the year.
“Inglourious Basterds” is rated R (what did you expect?) R for strong graphic violence, language and brief sexuality and is in English as well as German and French with English subtitles.
Companion viewing: “The Dirty Dozen” (a must!), “The Inglorious Bastards,” “Kelly’s Heroes,” “Army of Shadows”