The master is back. ‘Inglourious Basterds’ is a thrilling return to form for the caper movie master after Tarantino’s truly awful ‘Death Proof’. As you would expect, the violence is excessive, the dialogue crisp and plentiful, the tone is geeky as hell, and yes this is the WWII movie which could only have come from the mind of Quentin Tarantino, but it’s a solid piece of work and self-indulgent in, well, the ways only he would indulge in. It by no means ranks amongst ‘Jackie Brown’ or ‘Pulp Fiction’, it doesn’t emotionally engage where it probably should – it’s a cheap thrill but with a solid narrative behind it, but that was probably the intention.
Pitt and his crack commando unit the Basterds are sent in by the US Army to infiltrate occupied Europe and wantonly kill Nazis as gruesomely as humanly possible, to send a message to Hitler and co that what they’ve meted out to others (in particular Jews) is coming for them too. And their reputation quickly passes up the chain of command to Hitler himself – killing, scalping, braining, mutilating – there’s no limit to what the Basterds will do to terrorise Nazis. So far so over-the-top funny, but the writer/director has learned from the misfire of ‘Death Proof’. Their involvement is only tangential to the very serious cat and mouse game between Jewish cinema owner Mélanie Laurent and Nazi Jew hunter Christoph Waltz. Waltz starts the film by massacring her entire family in occupied France, before unwittingly encountering her once more as the unwilling object of desire of Major Daniel Brühl, who as both a Nazi war hero and the new pin up Nazi boy of Joseph Göbbels’ fledgling Nazi film industry, intends to hold the premiere of his latest propaganda film in Laurent’s cinema. The Basterds meanwhile get wind of the premiere through German actress and double agent Diane Kruger, who informs them the entire Nazi high command (including Hitler) will be in atendance, giving the Basterds the chance to kill them all and end the war. Laurent meanwhile sets about her own ruthless plan for revenge.
It’s a hugely entertaining, acid trip of a movie, which regularly lapses into self-indulgence (this is however a Tarantino film) and boasts some truly stellar performances. Laurent is a true find and more than holds much of the movie on her own, but Brühl (‘The Edukators’, ‘Goodbye Lenin!’) shows again why he’s a name to watch in world cinema, delivering a thoroughly rounded, completely believable performance of a character doubtlessly written as a caricature. They, the Basterds and indeed Pitt himself are all however out-acted by Christoph Waltz, who quite rightly won Best Actor at Cannes as SS Colonel Hans Landa. A thoroughly affable man, he’s far smarter and wilier than even the Basterds; where they’re a blunt instrument he’s refinement and grace, yet no less dangerous. It’s to Tarantino’s credit that he allows him to steal the entire film. It’s horribly bloated (the scene with Winston Churchill and aide-de-camp Mike Myers adds nothing whatsoever to the film other than a cheap laugh at Myers), the occasional voiceovers by Samuel L Jackson detract from otherwise sound storytelling, Pitt never quite breaks out from caricature, and the frequent discussions about European cinema ring more like Tarantino’s internal dialogue than the characters’, but these really aren’t significant quibbles.
It’s clearly two films – marketed as the spaghetti western gorefest, yet that element is unexpectedly but rightly downplayed in favour of the serious film centering on Waltz and Laurent. Tarantino just manages to blend them together in his own inimitable way, and the result is like nothing you’ll have seen before. It might not be in the top 5 for the summer, but don’t you dare miss it. 8/10