The revenge western "Django Unchained" is a hell-for-leather hoot.
Quentin Tarantino's colorful patchwork makes an old-fashioned genre fresh and interesting, assembling familiar elements in unfamiliar ways, and spinning stock characters in surprising (sometimes even deep) directions. He teases us with eccentrically timed action beats, giving us a lot of time to get to know the players and like or loathe them before the guns come out. His characters are never flesh-and-blood people, but as pop icons they are sublimely entertaining.
Set two years before the Civil War, the film stars Jamie Foxx as a slave named Django and Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz, a German bounty hunter. Schultz greets Django's slave gang with a tip of the hat and a cheery, "Hello, you poor devils." In short order, and with a rich helping of "Hell, yeah" violence, Schultz frees Django and takes him as a partner.
Right there, with "Dr. King" liberating a black man, you understand that this is going to be exploitation filmmaking with some thematic bite to it. The film has a lot more on its mind, and explores it to stronger effect than its six-shooter trappings imply.
Django agrees to help Schultz track down a trio of nefarious outlaws. In exchange, Schultz promises to help Django rescue his enslaved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). The corpses pile up fast during this setup, but the character development is handled with excellent attention to detail. Schultz prefers to outwit his enemies, but if reason fails, he'll blow them out of their boots without batting an eye.
Django learns fast how to handle himself as a total outsider in white society. A fascinating contrast to the image of the Eastwood-style loner, he proves very much dependent on community and romantic love.
The Oscar-winning leads are a dream team. Waltz is an urbane delight as the more expressive of the pair, gradually ceding the spotlight to Foxx as his newly freed character gains self-assurance.
Foxx is willing to be the foil for some humor -- when Schultz invites Django to choose his own wardrobe for the first time, the result is an outrageous visual gag -- but he never makes a joke of the character. The laughable fools here are the racists, like Don Johnson's Foghorn Leghorn-inspired landowner and the posse of hooded freedom riders who set out to capture Schultz and Django. The extended scene in which they pause to discuss the pros and cons of wearing masks could be an uproarious outtake from "Blazing Saddles."
Our heroes face a mirror-image pair of adversaries. Leonardo DiCaprio is faux-suave and reptilian as slave owner Calvin Candie, an overgrown brat who affects French airs but doesn't speak a word of it. Miraculously transformed by makeup, Samuel L. Jackson plays Candie's house slave, Stephen, an utterly evil, profane and hilarious villain in his own right.
They're beautifully detailed characters, and as they slowly become aware that Schultz and Django are up to some skulduggery, the tension grows nearly unbearable. Tarantino wrings excruciating emotional violence out of the quartet's tense dinner-table negotiations for Broomhilda's freedom. He doesn't need unholstered guns to get your heart in your throat, but when it comes to that, the bloodbaths have a perversely hedonistic charge. As always, Tarantino shifts fluidly between bombastic comic violence, gorgeous swaths of garrulous dialogue and passages of all-out chaos and horror. He turns the "blow stuff up and joke" movie into something sublime.
Robert Richardson's camera gives the film a sumptuous look, yet in every shot you know you're in Tarantino's movie universe. When the director shows up for a late-innings cameo, you think he's finally gone too far. Then he sideswipes you with a resolution to the scene that is explosively funny. He knows how to use our movie-conditioned anticipation against us. Watching his movie is like playing chess with a wiseguy friend who's always four moves ahead.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186 • Follow on Twitter: @ColinCovert