Movie review: Tarantino goes to war in 'Inglourious Basterds'

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 21, 2009 - 1:41 PM

The inimitable Quentin Tarantino goes to war in "Inglourious Basterds," his most accomplished film yet.

I'm tempted to say Tarantino has done it again, but I doubt anyone has ever done anything like his dazzlingly original World War II movie, "Inglourious Basterds."

If you expect a "Dirty Dozen" knockoff where a squad of kill-crazy commandos run wild behind enemy lines, think again. This is not a team-on-a-mission yarn nor a Brad Pitt star vehicle. It's an ominous comedy and a prankish drama. It's a showcase for ornate dialogue, at least half of it in subtitled German or French. It's a war movie without battlefields, a postmodern period picture, a disco and funk soundtrack, an egregiously gory movie that lampoons screen violence. It's classic, quirky, quintessential Quentin.

The story unfolds over the course of five chapters, each filmed in a distinctive visual style, and boasts a gallery of memorably sketched characters. The vortex of stories, complex enough for a triple feature, meshes nimbly, events intersecting and advancing one another.

The curtain-raiser is "Once Upon a Time ... in Nazi-Occupied France," a title that recalls Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns more than war films. The scene is an extended duel of wits between jovial Gestapo Col. Hans "The Jew Hunter" Landa (Christoph Waltz) and a tense French farmer. The officer enters the dairyman's cottage, requests a glass of milk, and coaxes out information about hidden Jews.

Landa is a beast who behaves like a gentleman, the debonair, intelligent embodiment of European sophistication. He probes the farmer with understated threats and soft-spoken promises; every bantering exchange raises the stakes and the apprehension. The writing tops anything Tarantino has done to date. The climax arrives not in the expected spray of blood -- QT's been there, done that -- but a flurry of sawdust. Young Shoshonna Dreyfus escapes, but no one acquainted with Tarantino's avenging heroines will expect her to vanish entirely.

Enter Aldo "The Apache" Raine (Pitt) and his squad of eight G.I. Jews. The tone shifts to gory farce as Pitt, in a hillbilly twang, commands his crew to scalp 100 Nazis each as payback for their anti-Semitic brutality. Aldo is so casual about baseball bat executions and Bowie knife mutilation that the bloodshed is almost comical. "Watchin' Donny beat Nazis to death is the closest we ever get to goin' to the movies," he drawls.

The baton is passed again and we're into "Cinema Paradiso" romance as a film-buff German soldier (Daniel Bruhl) genially woos an aloof Parisian moviehouse owner (Melanie Laurent). "If you are so desperate for a girlfriend," she sniffs, "I suggest you try Vichy." Another shift of the gears and the film accelerates into a foreign intrigue thriller. The German high command will all be in attendance as propaganda minister Goebbels unveils his morale-building epic "Nation's Pride" in a Paris theater with a library of highly flammable nitrate film. Characters converge and clash as competing plots emerge to assassinate the Reich's leaders and end the war in one swift stroke.

Tarantino takes his sweet time pulling it all together. The film stretches on for 2 1/2 hours. But it isn't dull. The rhythm of tense waiting and quick-draw violence is hypnotic, almost sensual. Why rush? Tarantino wants us to savor the last morsel of every sequence, to digest each visual nuance (ace cinematographer Robert Richardson outdoes himself) and every narrative device.

The film is deliberately excessive, teeming with supporting players who could carry a film on their own. Til Schweiger plays a psycho German soldier who joins the Basterds after killing 13 officers; he's as tranquil and threatening as a coiled cobra. Michael Fassbender (who played skeletal IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands in "Hunger") is a heroic film critic (!) with a purring hauteur worthy of George Saunders. Diane Krueger is Mata Hari-mysterious as a German film star and undercover agent who may be leading the commandos into a trap.

Good as Pitt is, the breakout performance is Waltz as the charmingly despicable Col. Landa, a villain so clever, intelligent and underhanded that he turns World War II into his own private con game. His dry delivery, which spans four languages, earned him the best actor award at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and will surely draw attention come Oscar time.

The film's beyond-spectacular climax is a thing of awful beauty. A white-tie crowd of German film executives cheers as the hero of Goebbels' film-within-a-film mows down hundreds of Allied soldiers. Tarantino reframes the spectacle and reenacts it, handing us a rip-roaring, rabble-rousing "Kill Adolf" revenge fantasy that's cathartic on the surface but troubling on a deeper level.

If you're a Tarantino fan, you'll adore his most accomplished work yet. If you're not, this one-stop film festival may be the experience that turns you into one.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

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