Well, he got part of it right. If there’s one thing this film is, it’s inglorious. And come to think of it everyone is a bastard so he got it all right. While the film has its moments it’s caught in its own little film universe, unable to see its faults from within. Quentin Tarantino’s part spaghetti Western part war exploitation film suffers from excessive dialogue, poorly executed violence and ripping off films in general.
Tarantino has made a name for himself by to some degree riffing off other’s works. The two pillars on which made him a household name, Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, are original enough, but since then his films have essentially been riffs off of the clichés of an entire genres. Inglourious Basterds follows suit, even more so by taking on two genres at once.
To be completely honest, I’m not well versed in exploitation cinema, in fact, all I know of it is second hand from what I’ve read in books. I can say that the depictions of violence follow the conventions of the genre to a degree. Blood is copious enough, and there’s some pretty nasty cutting, but it never falls into torture porn territory. In its own way the violence is quite tasteful, even though it is nothing more than shallow spectacle.
The spaghetti Western is something I can speak of more. The film is obviously not a Western but that doesn’t stop Tarantino from taking a lot of the techniques. The opening chapter is shot, paced and scored like the opening to a Sergio Leone film: long and drawn out, but tense. Even the narrative is shaped by spaghetti Westerns. One of the character’s experiences is practically pulled from Once Upon a Time in the West and even has the same visual queue years later as in the film. The film is also broken up into five chapters, like a spaghetti Western.
Unlike most spaghetti Westerns, Inglourious Basterds is a chatty film. Tarantino has always had great dialogue, and while this film has some witty prose it’s held back by some speech impediments. First, a lot of the dialogue is in German and French, meaning that possibly around half the dialogue is subtitled and in the process it loses that quality which defines Quentin Tarantino dialogue. Perhaps it sounds fantastic to French and German speakers, but judging by the subtitles it lacks personality.
Second, the film uses an excess of dialogue. Almost every scene is ridiculously loquacious to the point that often the character draws out a simple thought. The one thing Tarantino didn’t bring over from the spaghetti Western is an economy of words because this film indulges itself in what Tarantino seems thinks is some of the sharpest dialogue to reach the screen. It’s as if the cast is in love with hearing their own voices. Or maybe they all just ended up talking with the same ferocity as Tarantino after a few days on set.
I love good dialogue as much as the next guy, in fact, I probably love movies that are simply people talking more than any grown man, but Inglourious Basterds overdoses itself on the English, French and German language. That being said, just about every word that comes out of Brad Pitt’s or Christoph Waltz’s mouth is pure gold. Tarantino still has a knack for good dialogue, he just gets lost in it. He even goes so far as to add several instances of narration by Samuel L. Jackson that only lengthen the already verbose script.
In-between all this talking there’s supposed to be some shootouts, right? While there are a fair number of exploitative shootouts, they can all be counted on one hand and you’ve seen most of them in the trailer. Tarantino proved with both Kill Bill films that he can shoot great action sequences, yet here the sequences are less graceful. It’s the kind of visceral, fast cutting shootout expected from a lesser film. The violence is stylized, but experienced in a kind of chaotic sensory fashion. It reminds me more of slasher film than a war film and while it’s brutal, it’s also incoherent. These sequences are easily the weakest points of the film.
And speaking of film this film loves films. This is practically a film about film and even contains a film within the film. It’s a film love fest. The plot of the film is that these cold hearted American Nazi killers go into Nazi occupied France to blow up a movie theater full of high commanding Nazi officers. These officers will be attending the premier of the latest Nazi propaganda flick depicting the exploits of one of their war heroes who starred in this film and is a film buff himself.
The film is chocked full of other movie related stuff. The mission is called Operation Kino, after the German word for film. The founder of the project is a German actress who is also a double agent and one of the major players in the operation is a film critic. One of the key characters in the film is the owner of a movie theater who is being pestered by the Nazi war hero movie star/buff. There’s even an entire narration with the aforementioned Samuel L. Jackson wherein he explains the flammability of film. Yet for all its fascinations for movies, all it ends up adding to the movie is the constant remind that I’m watching a movie.
To top it all of the film is overly comical in its treatment of just about everything. Most of the film is played for straight up laughs. Most Tarantino films have some heavy dramatic moments, but in this just so much of the film is treated in such a comical fashion that the heavy moments lose their impact because they end up being rather silly. Part of it has to do with Tarantino’s selection of atrociously inappropriate music in the film. Some of it is good, but most is intended ironically but ends up being an irritant instead. The end in particular is so over the top that it feels like a bad joke. What could have been really interesting film ended up reduced to comic farce.
And what could be of interest you say? Well, what District 9 did for aliens Inglourious Basterds sets out to do for Nazis. It depicts the kinds of atrocities committed to Nazis and animosity shown towards them. The Bastards are just as cruel and inhumane as the Nazi’s, in fact they are crasser in their brutality. Buried in this film is this interesting German war hero that seems to be a very human character. Yet by the end he turns big bad, which shouldn’t be a surprise because he’s a Nazi, right? And if there is one thing films have taught us it’s that Nazis are evil incarnate. Yet still, war doeth make bastards of us all.
But for all my critical cruelty towards Inglourious Basterds, it has many a fine thing going for it. Christoph Waltz gives one of the best performances of the year as an SS officer who hunts Jews. He projects a gentlemanly formality guising the harsh cruelty just centimeters beneath. Any scene he occupies is a delight to watch. In fact, all the performances here are strong and they do end up carrying a lot of this film. Likewise, even the overly-long dialogue is enjoyable to here. Granted, it’s caught up in itself but no one can quite write dialogue like Quentin Tarantino.
Tarantino has always been a bit self-indulgent in his filmmaking, but this film takes it to new heights. This entire film smacks of films. It’s about all film related things, the amalgamation of two genres and riffs off of the ideas of many other films without ever making it its own. Perhaps if it had been able to make at least one Nazi human there would be something fresh here. A good films needs to stand on its own merits, not on the merits of 100 years of other people works.
© 2009 James Blake Ewing