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?

By , Film critic

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    'Django Unchained' stars Leonardo DiCaprio (r.) and Jamie Foxx (l.).
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Where would Quentin Tarantino be without pulp? All of his movies, not just “Pulp Fiction” and “Kill Bill” and the rest, but also the ones he wrote but did not direct, like “Natural Born Killers” and “True Romance,” mainline blood and guts and grunge. A better question might be: Where would Tarantino be without violence? But it’s violence of a special sort: shockingly explicit and yet not to be taken altogether seriously (even though some of us do).

Set in the pre-Civil War South, his new film, “Django Unchained,” is like a spaghetti-western burlesque of “Mandingo.” A bounty hunter from Germany named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), posing as a dentist with a giant bobbing tooth hooked to the top of his carriage, comes upon a pack of rednecks guarding a chain gang and offers to buy one of their slaves, the strapping Django (Jamie Foxx).

Since this is a Tarantino movie, they will violently refuse and violently be put down for their troubles. The tone is set: Absurdity (that giant tooth) plus bloodshed (not ketchup) plus graveyard humor (Waltz has all the best lines, and he knows it). It develops that Django, on a mission to recover Hildi (Kerry Washington), the wife from whom he was torn apart, becomes Schultz’s partner. Among other things, this means he gets to obliterate a lot of white racists as the two of them carve their way to the plantation, Candyland, where Hildi is being held. It’s a love story crossed with a buddy movie.

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Instead of trying to buy Hildi outright, which might be too obvious, they pretend to be in the market for a mandingo fighter. Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the plantation owner, is a sniggling little tyrant, but he’s taken in by the ruse until Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), who runs the household, sniffs it out. In a crew of mostly bad guys, Stephen is probably the worst of the worst. This is perhaps the most politically incorrect role a black man has ever played since “The Birth of a Nation” – and, come to think of it, white actors played black actors in that movie.

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.

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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