Quentin Tarantino’s audacious blaxploitation western Django Unchained does for America’s Antebellum South what his previous film Inglourious Basterds did for World War Two Europe: rights history’s wrongs with a brazen revenge fantasy climaxing in a bloody orgy of retributive violence.
Again, Tarantino looks to Italian cult movies for inspiration – specifically, here, the cycle of spaghetti westerns kicked off by Sergio Corbucci’s 1965 film Django. Corbucci’s hero, originally played by Franco Nero (who pops up in a cameo here), lends his name to Tarantino’s protagonist – a whip-scarred black slave, played by Jamie Foxx, whose encounter with Christoph Waltz’s German-born bounty hunter Dr King Schultz in the opening scene sets the film’s convoluted plot in motion.
Releasing Django from a slave chain gang, Schultz procures his aid to hunt down a trio of outlaw brothers – currently hiding out under assumed names as overseers on a Southern plantation – but quickly comes to appreciate Django’s aptitude for the bounty-hunting business and offers to make him his partner.
Like slavery, Schultz explains, bounty hunting is a flesh for cash trade. To which Django responds: ‘You kill white folk for money. What’s not to like?’
Django’s true mission in life, however, is to rescue his enslaved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), a mission that Schultz, recognising the origin of Broomhilda’s name, recasts as Siegfried’s quest to save Brunhilde in German myth. She is to be found not on top of a fire-ringed mountain but on a Mississippi plantation called Candyland, the property of Leonardo DiCaprio’s preening sadist Calvin Candie. And it is Candie’s shrewd slave butler Stephen, played by Samuel L Jackson as a grotesque, self-hating Uncle Tom, who proves the greatest obstacle to the success of Django and Schultz’s enterprise.
How successful, though, is Tarantino himself?
His film is certainly overlong, overblown and overly self-indulgent. But excess is what Tarantino does. And just as he won’t put one word in his characters’ mouths when he can have them utter 10; he won’t dispatch a bad guy with one bullet when he can discharge a dozen. Fortunately, in Waltz, Foxx, DiCaprio and Jackson, Tarantino has actors with the verbal dazzle to pull off his loquaciousness. The violence is harder to stomach. Much of the bloodshed is played for laughs, but in other places the gore has a deadly moral seriousness. When Tarantino depicts dogs ripping a slave to death, he tackles the barbarity of slavery with an unflinching honesty that is absent from Steven Spielberg’s seriously worthy Lincoln.
Django Unchained is too long and its middle section is decidedly saggy. Episodes such as a Blazing Saddles-like sequence in which a posse of blundering Klansmen fret over the size of the eyeholes in their sacks, go on too long. The romance between Django and Broomhilda doesn’t live up to its mythic billing. And Tarantino’s own cameo appearance (and Australian accent) is cringe-worthy. But the film’s best sequences are so dazzling that you simply have to applaud Tarantino’s panache.
In cinemas from Friday 18th January.
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