Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds

****

Reviewed by: Chris

Motor-mouth director Quentin Tarantino is rather good at killing people. Fast. Slow. Or slo-mo. But always inventively. Death may be delayed with deviously droll asides or a bit of creative torture. An ear deliciously sliced off in Reservoir Dogs. An all-girl singalong with action replays of our fatal car-smash for Death Proof. A wedding massacre in Kill Bill. Or death requiring an internal carwash in Pulp Fiction. Inglourious Basterds is no exception. Death is nasty, funny, almost operatic, but never boring. One could almost write an outline based on who dies and how.

Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) leads an unconventional group of Jewish Americans behind enemy lines in World War II. Their fighting style includes Apache Indian tactics used to terrorize the Nazis. Graphic violence is mixed with tongue-twisting wittiness in Tarantino’s peerless signature style. The dialogue is developed to delay inevitable slaughter with ingenious irreverence. Stock characters are engineered with comic book gusto - and are so colourfully convincing that departures from historical fact seem mere details. A mesmerisingly multilingual special officer, Hans ‘The Jew Hunter’ Lands (an award-winning performance from Christoph Waltz) is main antagonist to Brad’s ‘Basterds’, as well as two other camps (French Jew Shosanna, and Churchill’s Brits plus Diane Kruger) who similarly plot to blow up Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels and the big bad guys. All in a giant conflagration of dynamite, double-agents, guns and plenty of old nitrate film. This happens at an old cinema which is showing a triumphant Nazi propaganda movie-within-the-movie, coincidentally directed by (Jewish) Eli Roth. Who coincidentally plays baseball-bat-bearing Donny Donnowitz, ‘The Bear Jew,’ who despatches Nazis by beating them bloodthirstily to a pulp.

Copy picture

When you expect violence, you get just sardonic wink. When you don’t, you get full-on, glorious, extended, blood-and-guts. Femmes fatales meanwhile deconstruct stereotypes and inject fashion into daring mise-en-scene and plot-devices. Shosanna (Melanie Laurent)’s enviable red dress kicks off a climactic chapter with feminine visual splendour and predictably subverts the traditional macho of war films. Obscure soundtrack references are abandoned for Bowie’s more visceral Cat People which explodes into our eardrums, and the fire of the Fuhrer is threatened with a heavy dose of gasoline. Zoe Bell leaps invisibly from Death Proof leading lady to stunt-double for Laurent and Kruger and the action finale delivers pay-off for a rather wordy middle section.

There are more historical and cult film references (of varying levels of difficulty) than you could shake from a shibboleth of war movies. It is very clever. It is very Tarantino. It is very art-house. But is it good entertainment? Stylistically, it recalls Pulp Fiction more than any of the director’s other work. But the extended inter-action dialogues sometimes flag more than in his earlier glories. It still has great commercial appeal - fortunately for Mr Weinstein, whose flagging production company needs shekels to offset 500 million dollars of debts. But is it Tarantino’s masterpiece that has been ten years in the making?

For some, Inglourious Basterds could seem like Tarantino-lite. Perhaps more blood-letting and fewer word-games would have better satisfied our lust for passive cinema, big stars, three-second cuts and more explosions than obscure eponyms. And for serious cinema-goers, while acknowledging Tarantino’s nod to French New Wave, are we not entitled to ask if his films are going to have a point? “We’re French. We respect directors in our country,” Shosanna quips. Yes, but should they not also demonstrate substance to deserve it? Godard shot a lot of film just to question filmmaking styles. Only later did he seek to make films of depth.

Each of Tarantino’s films is like the arrival of a new voice in cinema. Yet having found his voice, what exactly does he want to say? Any new ground with Inglourious Basterds is firmly in the realm of genre manipulation. I didn’t feel it said anything new about Jews and Germans. And questions of race or language seem necessary conceits within the film rather than earth-shaking profundities. Tarantino can justify every aspect of the film to anyone who listens. Maybe I’m making ungrateful quibbles. Maybe our children’s children will speak of him with reverence. And if you are a Tarantino fan like I am, you will probably watch it twice anyway, whatever its faults. Does a film need any further justification?

Reviewed on: 17 Aug 2009
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Inglourious Basterds packshot
A mercenary group sets out to hunt Nazis and try to assassinate Hitler during the Second World War.
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Director: Quentin Tarantino

Writer: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Brad Pitt, Samuel L. Jackson, Diane Kruger, Eli Roth, Mike Myers, B.J. Novak, Cloris Leachman, Julie Dreyfus, Samm Levine, Til Schweiger, Michael Fassbender, Mélanie Laurent, Daniel Brühl, Christian Berkel

Year: 2009

Runtime: 153 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: USA, Germany

Festivals:

SSFF 2009

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