Quentin Tarantino’s characters are often astonished to find themselves in his intricate universe of references. That’s certainly true of Django (Jamie Foxx), a black slave in the antebellum South freed from bondage by German dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr. King Schulz (Christoph Waltz) in the opening moments of “Django Unchained,” Tarantino’s latest erratically fun and uneven tribute to the movies he loves and the discursive writing style he adores even more. The filmmaker’s seventh feature plays like looser, dust-caked sibling to “Inglorious Basterds,” his last rambunctious attempt to rile up history with a rebellious sense of play. Just as he unearthed “the face of Jewish vengeance” in “Basterds,” Tarantino relishes the opportunity to run wild with a symbol of black persecution until the idea loses momentum — and then, true to form, he just keeps going.
Tarantino’s fundamental inspiration stems from the original 1966 shoot-’em-up “Django,” a precedent rendered in obvious terms from the opening credits, when the bouncy theme song from Sergio Corbucci’s classic spaghetti western makes its first appearance. However, many other films of varying quality were made using the “Django” moniker over the years, and Tarantino’s appropriation of the brand smartly capitalizes on its malleability by turning western mythology inside out. At times more in line with “Blazing Saddles” than the grimly bawdy qualities that define many bonafide oaters, “Django Unchained” erupts with a conceptual brilliance from the outset that never fully meshes with its clumsy storyline. Nevertheless, it’s a giddy ride.
Initially just astonished when he’s suddenly taken from captivity by Dr. King (subtle), Django quickly grows into the role of fearless avenger in a racist society that constantly expects him to conform. After accompanying the bounty hunter on a pair of successful outings to take down heartless wanted (and white) criminals, Django accepts the cunning Dr. King’s offer to join forces for the season. In exchange, the German offers to help rescue Django’s enslaved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington, in a role that asks her to do little more than bat her eyelashes and scream when the occasion calls for it). That arrangement sets the pieces in motion for a riotous buddy comedy in which the duo capture plenty of bounty before hurtling toward their final target, wealthy plantation owner Calvin Candy (Leonardo DiCaprio, over the top even by these standards), who keeps Broomhilda locked up in a dismal existence at the appropriately-titled Candyland.
That arc might provide enough material for a tightly wound epic, but Tarantino mostly uses it to establish a general scenario and then push the pieces around. While no longer a villain akin to the Nazi overlord he played in “Basterds,” Waltz brings the same mixture of smarminess and verbose delivery that defined that Oscar-winning achievement, giving the impression that his curiously literate persona exists out of time. Django, meanwhile, defines it; Foxx delivers an impressively subdued turn that embodies the rage of the character’s generation.
Positioning both of them as vessels for Tarantino’s window into western iconography, he loads up their adventures with ample reference points at every step along the way. Aficionados of spaghetti westerns in general and Sergio Corbucci’s movies in particular will relish the opportunities to pick through the easter eggs, which range from passing allusions (a cameo by original “Django” star Franco Nero, a saloon named for Corbucci’s “Minnesota Clay”) to subtler qualities funneled into the story’s DNA. (The notion of a German bounty hunter in the Old West only makes sense, I think, in relation to the several spaghetti western roles played by German actor Klaus Kinski; the surname of Django’s wife pays homage to blaxploitation hero John Shaft, a rather brilliant means of bridging the gap between the far-reaching genre traditions that Tarantino loves). Overall, it’s easy to appreciate the screwy, lurid atmosphere, but even as Tarantino’s enthusiasm is characteristically infectious, it eventually grows tiresome.Basically, the experience boils down to this: Accept “Django Unchained” on its own gonzo terms and it’s a marvelously enjoyable piece of subversive entertainment — for a little while. The initial 70-odd minutes rival “Basterds” for successfully blending self-serious allusions to other movies, loopy monologues riddled with irreverent asides and comic outbursts of violence into a delightfully off-kilter mash-up that comes across as Tarantino saluting his own connoisseurship. As with “Inglourious Basterds” and “Kill Bill,” cinematographer Robert Richardson’s loud color schemes and retro camerawork nicely compliment the cartoon logic, as does the vivid soundtrack.
Also, like “Basterds,” Tarantino strengthens his predilection for cinematic pastiche by translating unseemly historical imagery into zany fantasy. While this may constitute his overall weakest picture to date, it’s not devoid of the elements that make his rambunctious genre exercises so crazily memorable. Tarantino’s movies work best when you know what to expect of them, and to appreciate its random assortment of monologues and reference points for what they truly are: a lively collage of familiar ingredients enlivened by farcical style and characters who follow suit. Hence, a prolonged bit involving Ku Klux Klan members chasing Dr. King and Django but doomed by poorly-cut eyeholes in their hoods makes for Tarantino’s funniest piece of writing to date. Elsewhere, Dr. King’s fish-out-of-water presence provides a witty commentary on the extremes of the era, injecting the story with a wry contemporary voice. “For the time being, I’m going to make this slavery rigamarole work to my advantage,” he tells Django when he technically purchases the man after killing his former owners. “Having said that, I feel guilty.”
Tarantino, however, positions his comedy without a twinge of guilt. The great equalizer of racial tensions, he turns potentially boundary-pushing humor into an all-inclusive experience. When Calvin Candy’s servant explains his role in maintaining the estate, Django replies that the white man is “almost like a nigger,” a bold remark punctuated with one of several ostentatious zooms lifted from the spaghetti western vernacular — allowing for yet another moment of unlikely humor.
However, much of what makes “Django Unchained” so energizing right out of the gate is ruined by an overindulgence of those same ingredients during the bloated second half. There’s so much to admire about the movie that I had to see it twice to soak in the minutiae of Tarantino’s stabs at showmanship. But none of that changes the terribly drawn-out scenes taking place on Candy’s plantation as Tarantino gradually trounces on his initial exuberance with redundancies. DiCaprio’s uneven performance as the main villain never takes on enough definition to seem necessary in the already cluttered plot. Once he arrives, the movie stalls for a good hour as Django winds up in a clandestine attempt to win back his wife. “You had my curiosity,” Candy tells the men when they make an offer on his land as part of an elaborate plan to win back Broomhilda. “Now you have my attention.” That’s an apt description of the impact “Django Unchained” maintains until it slows down, only regaining excitement with the gloriously chaotic and blood-soaked finale.
Before that happens, Tarantino is hampered by strange choices, setting an admittedly first-rate soundtrack of western ditties and hip-hop to useless slo-mo montages while the mounting suspense between Candy and his two visitors rings hollow. A prolonged dinner scene wastes time with little payoff and the explosive finale arrives with hardly much surprise. While uninspired, Django’s concluding assault on Candyland is an immensely watchable affair. I’ll keep the details vague, but suffice to say the closing set piece involves dynamite, horses, speedy gun-twirling antics and a whole lot of blood, all the ingredients necessary to remind us that Tarantino packs a wallop even when firing blanks. This one overstays its welcome, but not before the filmmaker reminds us why we love him.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? The Weinstein Company releases “Django Unchained” on Christmas Day where it will directly compete with “Les Misérables” at the box office. Reviews will likely be mixed, but enough positive buzz and existing enthusiasm for the project should help it find a way to healthy returns. It faces uneasy awards season propositions, but Tarantino’s screenplay stands a chance at gaining some accolades in that department. Watch the trailer below: