I’ve been eager to watch this film for a long time. After missing it at the cinema, I waited patiently for a fully-loaded DVD to arrive on the shelf. And waited. And waited. Tarantino flicks demand the sort of treatment this format was designed for: commentaries, documentaries, featurettes… The works, basically. I have the 2-disc Special Editions of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown and I was hoping for something similar for this, but after all this time I just had to bite the bullet. Does the film hold up on its own?
More Fassbender and Schweiger please.
For those of you living under a rock the last three years: Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France, a young woman witnesses her entire family killed at the hands of famed Jew hunter Colonel Hans Landa of the SS before escaping. Three years later she has grown up to be Mélanie Laurent and now owns a small cinema in Paris which she inherited from the elderly couple who took her in. She is being unwillingly courted by a young German officer whose heroic deeds against the enemy have been made into a propaganda film. In an attempt to woo her, he asks Goebbels to hold the premiere of the film at her cinema. Initially repulsed by this idea, once she discovers Hitler will be attending she agrees, so that she can gather the Third Reich high command all in one place then lock the doors and burn the place to the ground. Meanwhile, a platoon of American soldiers (these will be the Basterds of the title) is on a mission to spread fear through the ranks of the enemy by torturing and killing them in the manner of the Apache. Scalping, mutilation and death ensue.
So does it hold up? Duh; it’s a Tarantino flick. This is the movie His Chin-ness has been talking up for over a decade before he even started rolling the cameras. This is the Chinese Democracy and Duke Nukem Forever of genre movies. And make no mistake about it: this is a genre picture. More Saving Pulp Fiction than A Bridge Too Far. I have no idea how closely the finished article compared to his original fever-dream, but it is a 2½ hour rampage through the accepted history of WW2 shot through with QT’s trademark wit and snappy dialogue, although since it’s a period piece it is by necessity a lot lighter on the Madonna references. Inglourious Basterds is not without its flaws though, so I’m going to look at this in two ways: what works and what doesn’t work.
Let’s get the problems out of the way first so that we can end on a high.
- There’s just too much crammed in here. Tarantino’s best movies have followed multiple plotlines and they worked because those strands all complemented each other and fed into the larger story in an extraordinarily well-designed way, but with Inglourious Basterds he goes that step too far. I went beyond wanting to see more of each story and ended up feeling short-changed, particularly when it came to the Basterds. Here we have the title characters of the flick and half of them don’t even get a line. Any of the three main plots could have held up as a complete movie in their own right. In fact, this would have made an incredible trilogy; three separate movies that occurred over the same time period and occasionally danced around their companions. Can you imagine it? It would have been Tarantino’s Three Colours.
- The ending. I’m sorry for offending anyone’s delicate sensibilities with this sentence but with Death Proof and now this, QT seems to have forgotten how to stick the ending. The Cap’n made me promise to mention this before things get hairy: since we’re talking endings here, the conversation is liable to get a bit spoilerific. I felt a bit let down frankly after all that build-up. (Almost) everybody died?! Landa helped kill Hitler then flipped at the drop of a hat?! It makes a little bit of sense that he be motivated by personal pride in doing his job more than ideology, but even so there was no real inkling of it, no foreshadowing, suddenly it just happens. It felt like a cheat.
- Eli Roth. The man is not an actor. Sorry dude, but there it is.
So what works?
- Hans Landa. Austrian actor Christoph Waltz can build a whole new career on the strength of his performance in this film. Simultaneously charming, seductive and terrifying, Landa is a glorious piece of work (except for that slight fumble at the end, but that was no fault of Waltz’s).
- Every damn thing else, but especially Michael Fassbender and Til Schweiger. They should have been in the film more! I want to see the Archie Hicox movie, and a horror sequel where Stiglitz prowls through Hell killing the Nazis all over again. You know how awesome that would be, don’t even try and say otherwise.
Overall, Inglourious Basterds is a cracking film. The performances are (almost) all great, the script is hilarious and the action is top-notch. The farmhouse and the tavern scenes will remain as highlights for me for a long time to come.
Just one more thing though. If you haven’t already, you should definitely get a hold of Enzo G. Castellari’s Inglorious Bastards from 1978. Fred Williamson and Bo Svenson star as US Army soldiers who escape from a prison transport after an air strike and wind up accidentally involved in a French Resistance plot to steal Nazi hardware and get it back to the Allies without getting killed or locked up again. Other than the appropriated title and the WW2 setting, the two flicks have nothing in common but it is a great little film that at one point was re-edited as a Blaxploitation movie and renamed G.I. Bro! How can you not love that?