Slave revenge film ‘Django’ lacks the Tarantino spark
Bullets, bullwhips and beatings produce slo-mo geysers of blood. Pistoleros launch into soliloquies on slavery and the German Siegfried myth.
“Django Unchained” is set in Quentin Tarantino’s pre-Civil War South. Another indulgent movie from the cinema’s reigning junk-genre junkie, “Django” mashes together 1960s Italian “Spaghetti Westerns” and ’70s American blaxploitation pictures.
Hey, he got away with a fantastical World War II Holocaust revenge picture (“Inglourious Basterds”). Why not a “revenge for slavery” romp?
Django is a slave turned bounty hunter, a black man who gets to “kill white folks, and they pay you for it.” The film features a couple of Oscar winners – Jamie Foxx in the title role, and Christoph Waltz, who won his statuette for “Inglourious.” And we’re treated to the usual selection of Tarantino retreads – character actors he admired in his video store clerk youth whom he anoints with Travolta/ Pam Grier comebacks – from Dennis Christopher (“Breaking Away”) to James Remar (“The Warriors,” “48 Hours”).
The players are in fine form. But the movie he’s embroiled them all in is a hit-and-miss affair, at times an amusing reimagining of history, more often a blood-spattered bore.
It ambles between “the cool parts” – over-the-top shootouts. But the renowned witty Tarantino monologues that spark the interludes between shootouts are weak, the connecting threads scanty.
Waltz has a grand time playing a German dentist traveling the South in a more lucrative line of work: “I kill people and sell their corpses for cash.”
He’s a bounty hunter, a wry and well-read gunslinger who relishes the irony of his trade in the land of slavery as much as he relishes twirling the hairs of his beard.
The dentist needs Django to identify some killers. And when Dr. Schultz can’t talk the hardcases transporting Django into selling him, he shoots them and frees a whole caravan of slaves.
Django is given his freedom, a horse and a gun. He’ll help with this hunt, and then set out in search of his wife (Kerry Washington), who was sold off to a distant plantation. Her name is “Broomhilda,” and Schultz sees this as a Siegfried-fights-for- Brunnhilde mythic quest.
This salt-and-pepper team hustle, insult and shoot their way through the Old South as if it’s the Old West. Schultz riles up the locals by expecting Django to have the same service (in saloons) as any white man. Django, given to wearing fancy duds and sunglasses, just wants them to get his name right.
“Django. The D is silent.”
Don Johnson leads a lynch mob, which includes Jonah Hill, who rides a horse “rather less well than another horse would.” Leonardo DiCaprio smacks his villainous lips as the smart, hypocritical Mississippi monster they must outfox and outgun to complete Django’s quest.
The historical bastardization of “Inglourious” has nothing on “Django,” where pre-Civil War characters are seen in faded Confederate uniforms, and dynamite, that talisman of every Z-grade Western, shows up nine years before it was patented. The soundtrack ranges from imitation Spaghetti Western themes to Jim Croce ballads to gangster rap. Samuel L. Jackson turns up in old-age makeup, his “Pulp Fiction” love of modern profanity undimmed. Geographically incompetent, with plantations overfilled with all manner of shootably venal white overseers, this isn’t Ken Burns history.
All part of the fun. Sergio Leone was no historical stickler – hurling late 19th century European artillery into his version of the Civil War in “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.”
Only it’s not that much fun here. Some scenes convey Tarantino-esque tension. But his unwillingness to trim anything slows the film to a crawl.
In “Django” he overindulges himself and panders to his audience. Hey, it worked last time. But by the time Tarantino himself shows up as an Aussie slave-driver (!?) in the third act, you may wish you’d had a bit more Kool-Aid before sitting down for this one.