Given what the world expects from Quentin Tarantino – the man, the myth, the pastiche-driven movie machine – his latest feature, “Inglourious Basterds,” stands out for its seemingly low ambition. Talked about for years by the filmmaker as his epic “guys-on-a-mission” movie, the final product, unveiled this morning in Cannes, certainly meets those standards. The story of Nazi-hunting Jewish soldiers delivers on the colorful brand of unserious entertainment implied by the plot, but no matter how much extreme contextualization and heavily stylized techniques Tarantino introduced to the production, “Inglorious Basterds” feels like a bubblegum sidedish to the heavy dinner plate of his career. While not intentionally a rudimentary project, it automatically becomes one by the limits of its design.
In the opening scene, Nazi Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) arrives at a house in the French countryside, where he interrogates a man about hiding Jews in his basement. The sequence culminates with the Nazis discovering the family hidden beneath the floorboards, killing all of them except for a young woman named Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent), who dashes into the forest. Except that’s not really the opening scene, because the first image of “Basterds” arrives on the heels of credits that beg to be considered as the true narrative introduction. Written in block letters aping the title cards associated with Sergio Leone Westerns, while the jangly soundtrack follows suit, they set the stage for the barrage of genre references to follow. Despite a World War II setting, “Inglourious Basterds” mainly feels like an homage to crime and thriller movies, using Nazis as cardboard villains in a facile manner akin to the “Indiana Jones” franchise.
As the story shoots forward, building into an espionage drama, Tarantino churns out the most conventional accomplishment of his career, “Jackie Brown” included. Sure, you can tear apart the layers of references to countless genres from multiple eras, but not with the same relish allowed by “Kill Bill” or “Pulp Fiction,” where reading into the text and digging its natural flow were not mutually exclusive.
That’s hardly the case here. To watch “Basterds” without considering Tarantino’s implementation of enyclopedic movie knowledge makes it into a breezy, insignificant experience. After introducing Shoshanna’s plight, Tarantino shifts to the antics of the “basterds,” a group of Jewish soldiers led by the fierce Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt). Merrily capturing Nazis, gleefully bashing their skulls and pocketing the scalps, the basterds provide the makings of a typical revenge fantasy. Tarantino wittily cast scrawny Jewish men (“Hostel” director Eli Roth and “The Office” star B.J. Novak among them) as the movie’s principle musclemen, but that subtly ironic joke never reaches its potential.
That’s because “Basterds” isn’t really a jokefest; it’s a talk-fest. Anyone familiar with the Tarantino touch will testify that the director likes to make his characters talk, and talk, and talk – and sometimes so that it ends up absorbing the spotlight. In “Basterds,” we see the worst side-effects of this tendency, as much of the movie relies on chatter to propel it along the basic trajectory of a spy movie. Shoshanna emerges in the disguise of a non-Jewish theater owner in Paris, where she manages to infiltrate the Nazis and scheme with the basterds to take them out.
The ludicrous plot heads straight for a fiery climax that finds our heroes on a straightforward path to killing off Adolph Hitler, Joesph Goebbels and prettty much everyone else at the head of the Third Reich. In an nice bit of self-referential irony, they aim to pull it off at a movie theater while the Nazis view a screening of their own propaganda. So “Basterds” makes viewers watch a movie about killing Nazis in which Nazis watch a movie and get killed. Setting the stage for a slaughterfest, Tarantino wants to craft an old-school entertainment by way of his favorite examples, but the multiple layers prevent it from holding interest from scene to scene. “Basterds” has an arbitrary progression: As Shoshanna plans her glorious retribution, dialogue scenes go on and on, people gets shot, lavish music cues make way for interstitial moments of contemplation, and so on. Get around to it, already.
Despite the injection of content from a variety of directions, “Basterds” lacks the crackly excitement of Tarantino’s other efforts, mainly because he can’t seem to tie the whole package together. Why does Samuel L. Jackson suddenly pop up on the soundtrack to narrate a fleeting background of the basterd’s evolution? If the movie pays tribute to Westerns, how come we never get a single man-on-man confrontation, the sort of climax that magically concluded “Kill Bill”? The disconnected ingredients don’t mean that the movie lacks the ability to deliver a good time, but simply that it never rises above the sense of a juvenile cinephilic rush job, and everyone knows Tarantino can do better than that.