Continuing his sad retreat from human experience into an increasingly outlandish junk-culture recycling bin, Quentin Tarantinos Inglourious Basterds is another frustrating outing from this undeniably gifted filmmaker. For all intents and purposes its the Kill Bill of World War II movies. With a handful of smartly crafted and divinely inspired moments, the film is impossible to dismiss. But, as is often the case with Tarantinos post-1990s output, great scenes are adrift in an undisciplined sea of ugly-spirited, juvenile self-indulgence.
Shuffled, like most Tarantino films, into disparate time-shifting chapters, Basterds lurches across occupied France, presenting a cheerfully vulgar and movie-mad alternate history of World War II. The adorable, if rather childish, idea at the films heart is that cinema can win wars. Time and again, characters are rescued from harm by their encyclopedic knowledge of Leni Reifensthal flicks; the work of G.W. Pabst and nitrate film itself becomes a powerful weapon against the Reich. Its a universe in which Germanys most popular movie star works as a double agent for the French resistance, and (much to my delight) a former film critic is now a dashing British spy.
But then there are those Basterds. Led by Brad Pitts hillbilly Lieutenant Aldo Raine, the title team is a gang of young Jewish grunts dropped behind enemy lines to savagely dismember every Nazi they can find in the French countryside. Theres the kernel of a potent revenge fantasy lurking in here somewhere, particularly since Jews are too often portrayed in WWII pictures as timid victims led to slaughter.
Too bad these sequences bring out the worst in Tarantino. Theres an icky fetishization of cruelty, wallowing in gore for giggles as Pitts mostly indistinguishable charges scalp and torture their prisoners with jokey abandon. A bloodbath though it might have been, Reservoir Dogs was weighed down with genuine human sufferingthe infamous ear-slicing scene more horrifying than humorous. Contrast that with just-for-yuks bits like Pitt shoving his finger inside a womans bullet wound and its impossible to ignore how far Tarantino has regressed.
Despite being the focus of the advertising campaign, the Inglourious Basterds serve little purpose in the film, the majority of which rehashes Tarantinos fixation on the story of a woman scorned ( la Kill Bill) . Mlanie Laurent stars as Shoshanna Dreyfus, a Jewish refugee and sole survivor of a family massacre carried out by Christoph Waltzs delectably sinister Colonel Hans Landa. Hiding out by running a Parisian movie house under a false identity, Shoshanna finds herself hosting a gala premiere for Joseph Goebbels latest propaganda film. Before long, her own personal vendetta dovetails with an Allied effort dubbed, Operation Kino.
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Running time: 153 minutes
Starring: Brad Pitt, Diane Kruger, Mlanie Laurent
Awards: Christoph Waltz won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival.
Tarantino has been talking up Inglourious Basterds for at least a decade, before finally rushing the film into production just over a year ago. It has the jumbled feeling of a much larger work thats been hastily culled into an ungainly two-and-a-half hours. Pivotal characters like Shoshanna remain ciphers, while bit players are lavished with attention only to be abruptly wiped off-screen. Stylistically all over-the-map, the film even briefly becomes a blacksploitation movie narrated by Sam Jackson, just to give us the rambling backstory of a marginal figure.
Yet, infuriatingly enough, there are sequences of sheer brilliance. A phenomenal mid-movie scene finds our starlet double agent (Diane Kruger) and that aforementioned handsome film critic (Michael Fassbender) meeting undercover in an underground tavern swarming with drunken German soldiers. Running at least a half-hour in length, the scene is a masterpiece of sustained tension, shifting alliances, and unexpected reveals. Tying into Basterds cinema-crazy themes, here we have an actress and a critic relying on performance skills and movie trivia to save their lives.
Its the kind of exhilarating sequence that reminds you just what a fresh voice Tarantino was in the 1990s, leaving you with a faint hope that he might still someday live up to the promise of those first three movies.