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Inglourious Basterds

Eli Roth and Brad Pit in Inglourious Basterds

WWII According to Tarantino

I’ve been a fan of Quentin Tarantino since Reservoir Dogs, but I was not looking forward to his newest film, a remake of an obscure 1978 Dirty Dozen ripoff from Italy called The Inglorious Bastards. The new version is titled Inglourious Basterds: I don’t know why, possibly as a comment on the crudeness of the characters to whom it refers, or maybe as a legal strategy to avoid having to pay for rights, though I can’t believe they could have cost much.

My affection for Tarantino’s ongoing odyssey through the history of exploitation cinema hit a bump with his last film, a revenge thriller released to theaters as half of the Grindhouse package (but you’re more likely to have seen a longer version on DVD or cable as Death Proof) It featured so much excruciatingly dull chatter that I started to wonder if Tarantino was trying to parody himself—snappy dialogue has always been his stock in trade. Worse, once it stopped yapping Death Proof became one of the most repulsively violent movies I’ve ever seen—and as someone who saw every exploitation movie that came through Western New York in the 1970s, I’ve seen a lot of them. It took days before I was able to get its ugliness out of my mind.

So you’ll understand my trepidation when I saw the first trailer for Inglourious Basterds, which consists entirely of a speech rousing soldiers to commit atrocities upon Nazis. Tarantino had described the movie as a “fairy tale,” and I envisioned detailed scenes of Nazi violence as an excuse for even more gruesome retribution. (I’m not sure exactly when I became such a wuss, but these things happen.)

I am happy to report that my fears were unfounded. The film contains only one scene of murderous violence, exacted upon a Nazi officer by a soldier played by Eli Roth, director of such tortureporn classics as Hostel. Even in that scene, what we anticipate isn’t nearly as bad as what we get.

That’s not the only way in which Inglourious Basterds confounded my expectations. It isn’t really a remake of the Italian film at all, and the title characters, a group of Jewish soldiers on a mission to strike fear into the Nazis, aren’t even a major part of the plot.

Really, what Tarantino should have titled this was Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied France. (The phrase appears as his first chapter heading.) That would situate it with a number of other movies—Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon a Time in Mexico, the Jet Li Once Upon a Time in China series—that hearken back to Sergio Leone’s masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West. In each case, the title not only refers to the operatic excesses of the spaghetti Westerns of which Leone’s work was the apogee, but to a storytelling attitude in which history is a source but not a sacred one. (A fellow named Shakespeare used to do the same thing.)

Some viewers may be appalled that Tarantino has made a movie about World War II with events that clearly did not happen. (He’s not subtle about it, either—you don’t have to be a historian to spot where he has deviated from the textbooks.) I say, why not? It’s not as if you can accuse him of historical revisionism: He’s just figured out a clever way to surprise his audience. And his coup de grace packs quite a punch.

That said, a lot of viewers may lose patience with Inglourious Basterds well before the climax. The story follows a plot to assassinate a room full of Nazi bigwigs assembled at a Paris theater for a screening of a new propaganda film. Numerous characters are involved, and Tarantino spends a generous amount of time with each. If it were at least 45 minutes shorter, it would be a classic.

But beginning with the opening sequence, Tarantino lets too many scenes drag on and on and on. Like Leone, he’s going for tension. But Leone was at least a little tongue in cheek: The finale of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West are as delightful as they are partly because they’re also ridiculous.

The talky scenes here might be acceptable if, as in Tarantino’s early films, they were filled with clever (albeit self-conscious) dialogue. There are fun roles for Brad Pitt as the Tennessee-born leader of the Basterds (it’s the only film I’ve ever seen that could have used more Brad Pitt) and Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, who was named Best Actor at Cannes for his performance as the main Nazi bad guy. The stunt casting of Mike Myers as a British officer doesn’t work quite as well—it’s impossible to take him seriously. Otherwise, the rest of the characters (played by able European actors who will be unknown to most viewers) are secondary to the story, a first with Tarantino.

As a professional film geek, I admit to being tickled by Tarantino’s central conceit of having the cinema become a protagonist against the Nazis. And of course there are endless arcane movie references, citing both trash films (there are characters named after Hugo Stiglitz, Aldo Ray, and Antonio Margareti, and the climax is a nod to, of all things, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die) and the glory days of German cinema (G. W. Pabst, the “mountain films” starring Leni Riefenstahl before she moved into directing). But this is not the kind of thing that is going to set your average movie buff to chuckling, as did discussions of Lee Marvin and the lyrics to “Like a Virgin” in Reservoir Dogs.

Ditto the music, mostly lifted from Ennio Morricone and spaghetti Western scores, though with a smattering of American sources as well. Of course you can enjoy all of that without having any idea where it came from. (There has never been a Tarantino movie without a must-have soundtrack album.)

Like his underrated Jackie Brown, Inglourious Basterds shows that Tarantino is not merely the avatar of cult cinema. He knows what it takes to entertain the average moviegoer, but he demands that you meet him halfway. Who will win? Only the box office receipts will tell.

Watch the trailer for Inglourious Basterds

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