Inglourious Basterds Movie Review (Mania.com)
Review Date: Tuesday, August 18, 2009
For the first thirty minutes or so, I thought Inglourious Basterds was going to be the best film of Quentin Tarantino's career. It opens with a pair of beautiful sequences, steeped in the pulp sensibilities of World War II movies but bearing Tarantino's one-of-a-kind seal that no third-tier filmmaker could possibly emulate. The first involves an SS officer (Christoph Waltz) interrogating a French farmer (Denis Menochet) about a family of missing Jews. Their exchange becomes a cocktail of deception, assumption and faux politeness--fascinating and chilling in equal measures--and yet as it continues, Tarantino inserts a series of hysterical asides that deflates convention even as the remainder of the scene asserts its supremacy.
Things continue in that vein as we segue to our ostensible heroes--an elite unit of Jewish-American soldiers called the "Basterds" sent in ahead of Normandy to kill Nazis in the most brutal manner possible. Their leader, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) strides along their ranks, grinning and growling in his thick Tennessee accent about the atrocities he expects them to commit. The dialogue is masterful, and like that of the previous scene, adroitly blends the humorous and the horrific into an irresistible package. Had Inglourious Basterds maintained that energy, it might have constituted a crowning achievement for its already celebrated auteur.
But then, bit by bit, some of the magic leeches out of it. Not a disastrous amount, and not enough to knock the film off its moorings, but it does drop the movie from masterpiece levels into the realm of a mere romp. Self-indulgence appears to be the primary culprit. As the Basterds establish their bloody reputation, they find themselves on a collision course with a hidden Jewish conspirator (Melanie Laurent), who runs a movie theater in Paris and receives an unparalleled opportunity to avenge her people upon the Nazi high command. Tarantino tosses a few extra elements on top of that--including a treacherous German actress (Diane Kruger), a Nazi war hero (Daniel Brühl), and a British commando (Michael Fassbender) who parachutes in to lend a hand.
The storyline weaves back and forth between them with the requisite level of flair, touching upon Tarantino's usual beloved themes--a love of cinema, an appreciation for the lurid, and a semantic playfulness which takes full advantage of the various languages on display. Despite the 40s setting, it takes its cues from 60s and 70s interpretations of WW II, further enriching the postmodern stew which the director labors so earnestly to create. The only problem is that he doesn't know when to quit. So enamored does he become of his (admittedly peerless) dialogue that he can't bear to cut any of it out. Consequently, certain scenes drag on interminably--bloated by unnecessary conversational flair--while others seem meant for no one but Tarantino himself. Sometimes less can be more, and what begins as a gleeful treat eventually deteriorates into a case of "get the hell on with it."
Those expecting tons of WWII action are apt to be disappointed as well. Gunfights appear with sudden, brutal finality--punctuated by plenty of gallows humor as usual--but they don't take up a great deal of screen time. Save for one glorious slaughterfest at the end, they serve either to advance the plot or expound upon some concept which Tarantino finds amusing. The good news is that they fit quite readily into the film's overall tone; they simply take a back seat to the copious verbal sparring.
And that in and of itself still constitutes a terrific good time. The elaborate structure gives Inglorious Basterds a great deal of forward momentum (something Tarantino's Grindhouse entry lacked), and even at its worst, the man's cinematic style remains wondrous and unique. Pitt reaffirms that his best work involves broad characters, while Waltz rapidly steals the show with his pleasant, conversational SS monster. The smart aleck-y riffs and in-joke winking have long since lost their novelty, but they still retain their share of joys, thanks to Tarantino's endless inventiveness and overwhelming love for his work. Effort still matters and originality is too damn scarce to lightly dismiss. Inglourious Basterds has plenty of both to spare, and while it may not be art, it's still fairly unforgettable.
Mania Grade: B
Running Time: 2 hrs. 32 min.
Starring: Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Melanie Laurent, Diane Kruger, Daniel Brühl, Michael Fassbender, Eli Roth and Mike Myers
Written By: Quentin Tarantino
Directed By: Quentin Tarantino
Distributor: Universal Pictures, The Weinstein Company