Let the record show that Quentin Tarantino did not remake, remix or reconfigure Enzo G. Castellari’s 1978 World War II exploitation flick Inglorious Bastards, starring Bo Svenson and Fred “The Hammer” Williamson. (I doubt you could find two guys more up QT’s alley if you tried).
No, these Basterds, unique for more than the misspelled name, have been kicking around in Tarantino’s noggin for years, occupying a place in film culture akin to any number of conspiracy theories about the government having access to alien technology and Elvis and Tupac sharing a beachfront pad in Jamaica. Who knows, maybe The Vega Brothers will finally see the light of day and usher in The Rapture.
That’s the level of hype set to greet Inglourious Basterds from the cult of Tarantino, and the film does its level best to earn the buzz with a slow-burn opening in a French farmhouse during the German occupation as Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), aka The Jew Hunter, conducts an interrogation in support of a search for a family of Jewish farmers on the run. The dialogue crackles as the temperature rises, and audiences will enjoy being in the hands of a master at work doing what he does best.
Yet by the time the sequence ends — with the escape of Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) from Landa — Tarantino seemingly has nowhere else to go but down, down, down.
Although even when he slips and falls, he does so spectacularly.
The introduction of Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and his Basterds, the underground Jewish freedom fighters striking fear into the hearts of the Nazis, serve as another singular flashpoint worthy of praise, especially the tale of Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), the quiet badass Nazi-killing freelancer the Basterds recruit from imprisonment. But for all the explosive violence and jive talking, there’s little point to the whole affair.
Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction announced the arrival of a hipster of the first order, the likes of which film hadn’t seen in some time. Jackie Brown, my personal Tarantino favorite, hinted at a maturity that could transform his trendy self-indulgence into something truly great. But Kill Bill (both volumes), Death Proof and now Basterds have me pumping my brakes. The greatness bordering on genius — that dreaded label often too loosely applied — requires a degree of self-control in the face of a multitude of ideas because without a firm hand in command, you’re likely to make an unruly mess of things.
Inglorious Basterds is not exactly messy, though, despite feeling as if Tarantino gratuitously threw every random thought and film reference that came into his already overcrowded head on screen. At each and every turn, his salvation and downfall co-exist, making unusually comfortable bedmates. From idiot-savant casting decisions (Waltz fluently conjures the magic of Tarantino dialogue, while directing buddy Eli Roth is a real bastard on screen) to the unseemly mixture of humor with the subject of Jews and Nazis, he proves willing to go where few others would dare, soaring towards the outer limits of the atmosphere on a pair of paper wings based on a map he tattooed on his belly.
I’m not an apologist for the guy by any means, but I will say this: Tarantino turns the art of navel gazing into a weirdly prophetic contact sport, so let’s hope he doesn’t retire from the game. We need more of his fever dreams. Maybe he’ll stumble upon a glorious gem again. Grade: B
Opens Aug. 21. Check out theaters and show times, see the film's trailer and get theater details here.