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: