Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino

BY James KeastPublished Aug 20, 2009

If director Quentin Tarantino ever did decide to do a Dirty Dozen-style all-star run'n'gun war movie, I'd love to see it, but despite the trailers featuring Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) demanding that he "wants 100 Nazi scalps" from his assembled team of Jewish soldiers, Inglourious Basterds is not that war movie. The bait-and-switch is similar to Tarantino's Jackie Brown, which on the back of its title, trailer and star Pam Grier was sold as "Tarantino does Blaxploitation," only to have it turn out to be a beautiful, affecting character drama. Inglourious Basterds is a multi-lingual meditation on cinema, revenge fantasy and mythmaking but it's not the Nazi scalp hunt being sold. Nor are Pitt and the rest of his Basterds featured as prominently as expected.

The unexpected breakout star is German actor Christoph Waltz as the "Jew Hunter" Col. Hans Landa; in four languages he unleashes an oily charm, sycophantic and ambitious, as he sells the party line to French farmers and German aristocrats alike. Early in the film, a young Jewish woman (Melanie Laurent) escapes his grasp and ends up running a cinema in Nazi-occupied Paris, where naturally she screens a lot of German films - the early mountaineering pictures of later Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl are just one nod to actual film history. When a German soldier/movie star takes a shine to the cinema owner, he woos her by arranging a major film premiere at her establishment, bringing high command with him. She sees it as a golden opportunity for revenge.

While the Basterds take a back seat, German actors, including Diane Kruger (Helen, of Troy) as a cinema star sympathetic to the Allied cause, give credence to the film's setting; it's a typical Tarantino move that he would insist on native languages being heard in appropriate contexts but also that historical veracity goes right out the window. As is his stated intent, Inglourious Basterds is "kosher porn," a wilful attempt to undue decades of Jews being portrayed as whiny victims (horror director Eli Roth gets to kick the most ass in this regard). It's also pure fantasy, a funny balance in a film that puts so much effort into getting other details right.

There are actually fewer of Tarantino's signature flourishes here, although his unmistakable ear can be heard in the banter between soldiers, and especially in a (too long) scene in which various Basterds try to conspire in a French pub while German soldiers celebrate within earshot. And the highest profile casting (Roth and The Office's BJ Novak as Basterds, Mike Myers as a British officer) turn out to be little more than cameos. Even Brad Pitt takes on a more supporting role.

You might find yourself walking into a World War II action movie and walking out two-plus hours later having read a lot of subtitles, but the journey is delightful, fascinating and just unhinged enough to be a really good time. When Tarantino finally gives in to the bloodlust he's building, you might even find that your appetite for scalps is sated.

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