Love him or hate him, Quentin Tarantino knows how to make movies that get people talking about cinema. Granted, the people doing the talking are usually the characters in his movies, but his passion for the medium is infective - if not always effective. With Inglourious Basterds, he's managed to make a movie that will polarise more than ever; its lack of immediacy will frustrate casual audiences; its unfocused story will likely upset the QT hardcore; its historic tinkering will outrage almost everyone old enough to care.
But despite all this, Tarantino's love of cinema shines through. Inglourious Basterds is much like the director himself; the bastard lovechild of a dozen different genres and influences, rarely concerned with playing by the rules, only interested in having fun while breaking them. As such, while Basterds often feels like a film that lacks a true identity, there's bound to be something here that strikes a chord.
The clue is in the opening line: "Once Upon A Time In Nazi-Occupied France..." This is not Band Of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan or
. History is a harsh taskmaster and Quentin Tarantino is more interested in bunking off to forge his own adventures. Mis-sold on the star power of Pitt - and falsely labelled a 'men on a mission' yarn by the director himself - the Nazi-scalping Basterds only represent one facet of a tangle of plot-lines.
Primarily, the movie's narrative through line is the story of young Jewish girl Shosanna (Laurent), who escapes an early death at the hands of SS Col. Hans Landa (Waltz), aka 'The Jew Hunter', a feared high-ranking Nazi with a knack for finding and killing Hitler's outlaws. A change of identity and several years later, Shosanna is gifted with an opportunity to wreak a rip-roaring rampage of revenge.
Elsewhere, a faction of militant Jews nicknamed 'the Basterds' have taken up arms against the Nazis and aim to spread a little propaganda of their own, taking the scalps of any Nazi officers they find and carving swastikas into the foreheads of those they spare. Led by charismatic hick Lt. Aldo Raine (Pitt), they team up with English officer Archie Hicox (Fassbender) and movie star turncoat Bridget Von Hammersmark (Kruger) to gun for the biggest Nazi scalp of all. This being a Tarantino screenplay, plot threads flirt with each other on regular intervals until they culminate in an immensely satisifying and predictably violent conclusion.
Basterds has an episodic structure - it's easy to see how the concept could have fit the miniseries format Tarantino claimed it was destined for. Each chapter has a different flavour; the tense opening scene, a 20 minute nail-biter, has an unmistakable Leone quality to it; the scenes with the Basterds are like an extra Dirty Dozen; the soon-to-be infamous 'La Louisiane' bar-room scene is like the entirety of Reservoir Dogs condensed to a 20 minute potboiler. Germans mix with French Jews, Americans chum with Brits and Tarantino draws on influences far and wide: Basterds is his most global movie yet.
Christoph Waltz is superb as the multi-lingual Jew Hunter, pure menace on a coiled spring; a cauldron of violence simmering beneath the smiling, benevolent face of a childrens' television presenter. Pitt is a hoot as the Apache-esque Yank, while Eli Roth gives good physical presence as fellow Basterd Donnie and Hunger's Michael Fassbender gives his all in a handful of memorable scenes. Even Mike Myers as a British general strikes the right note of playful homage.
Typically, there is an abundance of character present - a colourful cast of rogues and rascals that are written almost to a fault. Tarantino's languid approch to scene-setting and dialogue means everyone has an overflow of back-story - everyone, that is, except the Basterds of the title.
While Waltz gets entire scenes dedicated to his character's machinations, Daniel Bruhl's Nazi sniper gets a movie-movie dedicated to his heroics and Laurent gets the bulk of the screen-time, Pitt and his men exist as the movie's anomaly, moving from scene to scene with great vigour but little motivation, other than their Lieutenant's barked orders at the beginning of the movie. Scalping Nazis is a worthy cause, but the bulk of the Basterds back-story is obviously being saved for a prequel - Tarantino has admitted it already. Look forward to that in 2029, right after his Vega Brothers movie and Kill Bill
For all his bravado and bold stylistic choices, Tarantino still falls foul of the same old pitfalls, namely an absolute refusal to put down his pen. Some scenes drag to completion and dialogue is unwieldy at times - Landa in particular often announces his intentions to speak before actually speaking. There is a certain element of self-indulgence - the thought that the whole movie has been crafted solely to tickle Tarantino's balls - and there are namechecks towards obscure European directors (Riefenstahl, Pabst) that are seemingly only included to tick the boxes marked 'cooler than you' on the Tarantino checklist. As usual, the director proves to be a woefully inadequate editor of his own work.
But where before such over-indulgence was a bore (hello Death Proof
), in Basterds everything just clicks. The tense scenes are seat-dampening, the gory scenes are disgusting, the gags all land and the finale is a real triumph of storytelling and spectacle (particularly when the final chapter's title, 'Revenge Of The Giant Face', becomes frighteningly and iconically clear). Tellingly, two and a half hours whip by without so much as an arse-ache.
Tarantino is still dependent on violence as a narrative thrust - there's a constant threat hanging in the air and most of the movie's business is conducted at gun or knife point. It makes for high tension, but low risk entertainment - though frankly, after a marathon back-and-forth between Allied spies and Nazi officers, a little gunplay doesn't go amiss. Basterds never plays war as tragedy (though characters are often killed just as they get interesting), but it never veers into parody either.
Pitt's corn-chewin' accent is the nudge in the audience's ribs: this is the boy's own World War adventure as seen in the comic-books of the '40s - violent, verbose pulp fiction that can't help but be gleefully consumed. Love him or hate him, but Tarantino still makes cinema that matters - looks like the glorious bastard just can't help himself.