Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Mike Myers, Michael Fassbender, Daniel Brühl
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“I think this might be my masterpiece,” says one Basterd to another, just after carving up a Nazi’s forehead. It’s not entirely convincing. Especially given that the line is said to Eli Roth. Eli Roth? He’s not an actor, you cry. You’re right. He ain’t. But this is Quentin Tarantino’s world, a WWII where Jews get revenge and cinema changes history, and the casting is slightly duff. Eli Roth and Mike Myers? Inglourious is the right word for it.
Led by Brad Pitt, the team of Basterds are a bloodthirsty group of Nazi-killing, scalp-seeking Americans. “Every man owes me 100 Nazi scalps!” bellows Lt. Aldo Raine (Pitt) to his troops, leaning into the camera. Then, airlifted into France, they set about maiming and dismembering every German mother****** they find.
But vengeance doesn’t just belong to them. It’s also the aim of Shosanna (Laurent), the sole survivor of her Jewish family. Years before, hiding under farm floorboards in our prologue, they get visited by “The Jew Hunter”, SS Col. Hans Landa (Waltz). Entering the family’s home, drinking their milk, interrogating their father, Landa is a tough man to fool. As he smokes his pipe, sizing up the man of the house, the tension hits Olympus heights. Soaking up the sweaty farmhouse kitchen, revelling in the softly spoken dialogue, the screenplay gets off to a sublime start. This is, quite simply, a perfect opening scene.
Then, it all starts to fall apart. Quentin’s chapter headings make an appearance, before flinging us forward to 1944. Now, Shosanna is all grown up. She owns a cinema, no less. Only for Frederick Zoller (Brühl), a young German war hero, to take a fancy to her. So, when Goebbels wants to release a movie based on Freddy’s exploits, it’s only natural he chooses her theatre for the premiere: the ideal opportunity for some explosive payback.
The Basterds, meanwhile, are shipping in some British help. Lt. Archie Hiccox (Fassbender) is to rendezvous with them, along with actress spy Bridget von Hammersmark (Kruger), and infiltrate the red carpet. Carrying lots of dynamite. And so the scene is set for one of Hollywood’s most unhistorical events of all time: the night that cinema killed The Third Reich.
It’s all done with panache, as per usual, but something doesn’t ring true. Inglourious Basterds, for all its frenetic fantasy and fun-filled premise, is lacking in action. With Tarantino, dialogue is action. Action is dialogue. The staccato rhythms of speech are enough to electrify an entire auditorium. But only when they’re in the right mouths. At the head of the A-List, Brad Pitt is… not good. Compare this, say, to Burn after Reading, and he’s nowhere near as funny as he’s clearly meant to be, gurning away with his grin. And Eli Roth is a talent behind the camera, not in front of it. The less said about Mike Myers’ British General, the better.
In other places, the casting is spot-on. A cancellation sees Michael Fassbender replace Simon Pegg as Hiccox – a wonderful, spiffy performance with tongue firmly in British cheek. Diane Kruger, too, is a beautiful presence, bringing some gravitas to her Hollywood dame. And the star of the show? Why, it’s Christoph Waltz. Smiling, staring, speaking four languages; is there anything this man cannot do? Smoking intently before breaking out English catchphrases, his Hans Landa takes as much joy out of language as he does killing people. Intimidating, entertaining and incredibly evil, he is one of the greatest Tarantino villains – a Best Supporting Actor Oscar well deserved.
Across the screen, his other half is equally captivating. Mélanie Laurent, with her pain-fuelled passion and hellbent fury, is one hell of a female lead. Stalking across her cinema in Swastika red, she smoulders her way through a substantial part, with a heat missing from many of her macho counterparts.
Despite several stand-out turns, though, Inglourious remains inconsistent. A patchy, bitty effort, with the occasional moment of excellence: the drawn-out dialogue on the farm, an inspired slow-burn scene in a bar halfway through, complete with Mexican standoff; when Tarantino tries, he’s truly magnificent. But when he’s lazy, it just doesn’t quite work. His film nods are less homages and more name-drops. Even the soundtrack, his usual mix of witty, pertinent pop music and Ennio Morricone, seems slung together with slightly less care than normal.
When the ridiculous, overblown climax arrives, Inglourious Basterds finds its feet once more, offering a striking, insane end to a wild revision of world history. Quentin’s crazy caper is distinctive, for sure, but at times a bit pickled. Amoral, violent and boldly brash, the result is fun, but uneven. There’s no fact in it, but this is far from Pulp Fiction. Watch closely, and you can see a master at work. Too bad he’s not at his best.
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