Image source. Copyright Universal Pictures, 2009.
If only World War II ended the way it does in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. As one of only a handful of movies that manages to get away with making fun of Hitler and the Nazis, Inglourious Basterds is a cheerfully revisionist look at World War II that bears all the violence, quirky dialogue, and brashness that so characterize Tarantino’s films. It’s no Pulp Fiction, but Basterds does justice to the Tarantino brand, thanks to its strong performances and tensely hilarious, if occasionally plodding, screenplay.
Inglourious Basterds is about World War II, all right, but not the D-Day and large-scale Allied invasions we’re all familiar with from textbooks. Tarantino’s reimagining of the war is smaller, more intimate, where one armed guerrilla group and a lone assassin each stand the greatest chance of bringing the Fuhrer to his knees. The armed guerrilla group: the “Basterds,” a regiment of American Jews led by Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt in a hilarious Southern accent). Completely unbeholden to any higher command, they merrily skin the scalps of every Nazi they come across and proudly carve swastikas onto the foreheads of the lucky victims they spare. The lone assassin: Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), the sole survivor of her family’s massacre at the hands of “Jew Hunter” Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), now running her own movie theater. And as luck would have it, a persistent German admirer of hers (Daniel Bruhl) convinces all the top Nazi brass to attend a film premiere in her theater. Revenge couldn’t get any sweeter.
What follows is a build-up and violent, VIOLENT resolution you’ve come to expect from watching Tarantino’s previous endeavors in Kill Bill and Reservoir Dogs. The gun-shooting and the standoffs can only take up so much screen time, however, and that’s where Tarantino’s other big asset comes in: dialogue. At his best, Tarantino writes screenplays that revel in the simple beauty of every back-and-forth, dialogue that makes the most trivial questions full of tension and uncertainty. Witness Samuel Jackson and John Travolta arguing over the meaning of a foot massage in Pulp Fiction. Unfortunately, perfection in writing doesn’t come easily, and while Inglourious is full of similarly wonderful foot-massage dialogue moments, it has just as many moments where you can’t help but look at your watch. Tarantino sometimes gets a little too immersed in the elegance of his dialogue, at the expense of the advancement of the plotline and our interest.
Whether because of that or something else, Inglourious, hilarious as it ends up being, simply doesn’t strike us the same way Tarantino’s earlier masterpieces like Pulp Fiction did. In Pulp Fiction, you had vignettes of mob bosses, hitmen, and prizefighters, similar to the vignettes of the Basterds, Shosanna and Colonel Landa you get here. But the characters in Pulp were all in their own way on a search for redemption, whether it was Samuel Jackson quitting his job after miraculously surviving a hail of bullets, Bruce Willis ignoring direct orders to win his match, or the young couple that tries but eventually bails on committing a robbery. Here, these people all want revenge and Hitler’s scalp…but what else? Is that it? Great you can reinvent the end of World War II, but what’s the point? There’s no real significance to the machinations of these lone crusaders aside from the entertainment of seeing them scheme to assassinate Mein Fuhrer.
But even if Inglourious is perhaps a little more of tedious and mundane Tarantino, it is still distinctly Tarantino. When his dialogue is good, it’s good. Just as the suspense solemnly builds up to a climactic showdown, you’ll find yourself suddenly laughing at the most random of moments. Watching Tarantino’s characters exchange retorts is like seeing a tennis match between masters, where every tiny, seemingly insignificant discrepancy in timing and position ends up mattering big-time. And I would be amiss if I didn’t acknowledge the best part of the entire movie: Christoph Waltz’s dazzling turn as the trilingual, slick yet iron-fisted “Jew Hunter.” One minute a family friend you’d gladly have over for dinner, the next a stone-hearted, ruthless killer, Waltz embodies the twists and turns of Tarantino’s funny-sad dialogue effortlessly. He’s a man who controls the fate of the Fuhrer, the Allies, the Jews, and the war in his cunning mind and knows it all too well. Amazing how Waltz was a complete unknown until this film, which showcased just how much talent he has. But it’s’ a breakout role all aspiring stars envy to have.
Don’t watch Inglourious expecting Pulp Fiction II. Tarantino loses himself a little too much in the intricacy of his dialogue and silly albeit delightful storyline for Inglourious to live up to that standard. It’s not a great movie. But it still has the best of Tarantino on display, with a performance from Waltz that carries the movie by itself. And if nothing else, it kills to see Brad Pitt speaking Italian in a Southern accent.
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Diane Kruger, Michael Fassbender, Daniel Bruhl, Melanie Laurent, Til Schweiger, Julie Dreyfus, August Diehl, Jacky Ido
Running Time: 153 minutes
Produced by: Lawrence Bender
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Written by: Quentin Tarantino