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.