By Van Thomas Roberts
Quentin Tarantino’s antebellum western “Django Unchained” (** OUT OF ****) is far more palatable than his appalling World War II epic “Inglourious Basterds.” Nevertheless, Tarantino adopts a tongue-in-cheek attitude toward ‘the peculiar institution,’ while he sets a new record for the number of times the politically incorrect N-word is used. The saving grace of “Django Unchained” is nobody behaves as clownishly as Brad Pitt did in “Inglourious Basterds.” Meaning, aside from its gratuitously-violent, revenge-fueled narrative, “Django Unchained” qualifies as a fair to middling horse opera that pays greater tribute to Fred Williamson’s Blaxploitation westerns than Sergio Corbucci’s Spaghetti westerns. Tarantino depicts southern plantation owners contemptuously as sadistic stooges along with anybody who conspires with them–whatever their pigmentation. Few surprises occur during its marathon 165-minutes. The absence of Tarantino’s long-time editor Sally Menke, who died in 2010 from heat stroke, may account for this meandering melodrama. The first hour should have been seriously trimmed, but it provides you with adequate opportunities to contend with super-sized soda drinks. Sadly, “Django Unchained” generates little excitement until Leonardo DiCaprio enlivens things with his presence. He makes his character’s obsession with phrenology appear frightening genuine. You know that he is a villain because he smokes too much. Tarantino stages one long, blood-splattered shoot-out that looks like a homage to “Saving Private Ryan.” This kind of exaggerated violence will make the squeamish cower. Conversely, gore hounds will admire the abundant use of exploding computer-generated body parts.
A German dentist who masquerades as a bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christopher Waltz), purchases a woebegone slave, Django (Jamie Fox of “Miami Vice”), from a pair of shotgun-wielding slave traders. Schultz kills one slaver, shoots the other slaver’s horse so the fallen animal traps its’ rider, and then releases the other slaves so they have their way with the pinned slaver. Schultz has been searching for Django. It seems Schultz wants to collect the bounty on the Brittle Brothers. Trouble is Schultz has never laid eyes on the Brittles so he wouldn’t recognize the three of them if he saw them. He buys Django so the African-American can spot them for him. After they track the Brittles down to Big Daddy’s plantation and kill them, Schultz makes Django his partner. They arouse comments wherever they go because Django rides a horse. Whites weren’t accustomed to seeing a black man astride a horse. Meantime, Django perfects his speed and accuracy with a six-gun until he can draw, fire, and hit the bull’s eye it in one fluid motion. He tells Schultz about his slave wife and resolves to be reunited with her. Schultz traces Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) to a plantation called Candieland. Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio of “Titanic”) owns Candieland and enjoys gambling on his African American Mandingo wrestlers. Schultz and Django pose as buyers searching for a good Mandingo fighter to buy. They are willing to pay $12-thousand for one of Candie’s fighters. Candie invites them to his plantation. Along the way, our heroes watch Candie punish one of his runaway slaves. He turns several dogs loose on the unfortunate slave and the dogs tear him apart. Afterward, everything goes as planned for our heroes until Candie’s oldest servant, head house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson of “Pulp Fiction”), suspects the two aren’t interested in slave fighters as much as they are in Broomhilda. At that point, all Hades breaks loose with shooting and killing galore.
Little of this so-called tribute to Spaghetti westerns resembles a Spaghetti western. Indeed, Tarantino didn’t lens the action in either Spain or Italy, and only rarely does the scenery look as spectacular as the scenery in a European western. Basically, three things qualify this as a Spaghetti western tribute film. First, original “Django” star Franco Nero makes a cameo in the second hour where he assures our African-American hero that he knows the D in Django is silent. Second, Tarantino appropriates music from several Spaghetti westerns, not only “Django,” but also “Day of Anger” and “They Call Me Trinity.” Purists will also recognize music from the Clint Eastwood western “Two Mules from Sister Sara” and the Rock Hudson World War II movie “Hornets Nest.” Third, Tarantino tries to imitate the popular zooms that were rampant during the 1970s. Incidentally, the zooms in “Django Unchained” barely resemble those zooms from long shots to close-ups so prevalent in Continental westerns and crime thrillers. Comparatively, few Spaghetti westerns were as gory as “Django Unchained.” The big plantation shoot-out looks like something derived from Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch.” Instead, “Django Unchained” looks more like a Blaxploitation western along the lines of the 1972 Fred Williamson western “The Legend of N***er Charley.”
The cast for the most part acquit themselves admirably. Not surprisingly, Tarantino hasn’t learned yet that his talents remain behind the camera rather than in front of it. Cast as an African-American slave turned bounty hunter, Jamie Fox maintains a straight face throughout the action, and Christopher Waltz oozes ingratiating charm as the older hero who teaches the younger hero how to be heroic. This is a standard-issue plotline in westerns. On the other hand, Leonardo DiCaprio virtually chews the scenery as plantation owner Calvin Candie. Samuel L. Jackson lands the juiciest role as a suspicious Uncle Tom house slave who has Calvin’s ear.Tarantino’s dialogue seemed on the weak side, too. Nothing here struck me as remotely quotable. This time around Tarantino employs lots of familiar faces, but few are featured in primary roles. If you look closely, you’ll recognize Bruce Dern, Tom Wopat, Michael Parks, Robert Carradine, and Lee Horsley in minor supporting roles. “Miami Vice” star Don Johnson and “Breaking Away” lead Dennis Christopher get more screen time than their colleagues from yesteryear. The only really funny scene involves Big Daddy’s vigilantes as they struggle to see through their crudely cut-out white bags that they wear over their heads. Altogether, considering the wealth of material Tarantino appropriated, “Django Unchained” amounts to a missed opportunity.0