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Quentin Tarantino's 'Django Unchained' is entertaining, but the same old schtick

'Django' shows Tarantino has perfected his game, but will the director ever move beyond his usual fare?

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Tarantino wants to merge the high-style bloodshed of the spaghetti westerns with the racial payback of the blaxploitation movies. (Django’s name is a homage to a spaghetti western icon and Hildi’s full name is Broomhilda von Shaft.) There’s a strong dose of fantasy wish-fulfillment here, just as there was in “Inglourious Basterds,” in which Jewish soldiers end up incinerating Hitler and his henchmen. In “Django Unchained,” Django’s righteousness is a license to kill those who enchained him.

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I took offense at “Inglourious Basterds” for using the horrors of the Holocaust as the pretext for yet another of Tarantino’s pulp fantasias. I felt then that he should stick to making movies about movies; the real world uglifies his play-act agenda. In “Django Unchained,” he’s not trying to rewrite a horrific history so much as he’s trying to capitalize on it. It’s a new-style blaxploitation movie by a director who is still in thrall to the old-style stuff.

But there was a not-always-fine line in films like “Shaft” and “Super Fly” between glorifying black action heroes and, with their parade of studs, pimps and pushers, perpetuating racial stereotypes. In “Django Unchained,” something similar is at work: Tarantino may be championing a black hero, but he also presents him as an inchoate suprahuman force of nature; the plantation scenes of mandingo slaves wrestling to the death have an atavistic feel.

Directors like Arthur Penn (“Bonnie and Clyde”) and Sam Peckinpah (“The Wild Bunch”) made movies about violence that were furiously complex. They expanded the meanings of violence in the movies. Because he draws almost exclusively on other movies and movie genres – not only blaxploitation and spaghetti westerns but samurai movies and French New Wave classics and film noir and drive-in grindhouse programmers – Tarantino’s films always appear to be taking place in never-never land, even when, as in “Django Unchained,” they have a historical basis. Everything he does is facetious – offered to us with a wink and a (crooked) smile. Paradoxically, his movies are both derivative and all his own. (It's the wink that makes them all his own.)

You have to admit he’s perfected his game, even if, as I do, you have large reservations about the game he is playing. “Django Unchained,” like most of his work, is constructed as a series of slow-burn face-offs that usually end in somebody getting pulverized. Unlike Penn or Peckinpah, he never seeks to enlarge the frame. He’s essentially a jokester, and sometimes his jokes, like the sequence in “Django Unchained” involving the Klan and their ill-fitting hoods, are excruciatingly funny. Actors love being in his movies because he gives them license to be funny-scary in ways that more conventional directors are too timid to encourage. The wily dialogue he gives them has real snap.

I had a pretty good time at “Django Unchained,” although it’s 40 minutes too long, but the question keeps coming back to me: Will Tarantino, who is more talented than he allows, ever break out of his perpetual adolescence and make a movie that does more than glorify his love of schlock? Will we ever get a “Tarantino Unchained”? Grade: B (Rated R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity.)

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