Quentin Tarantino says that his latest film, Inglorious Basterds, is a spaghetti western set almost accidentally in World War II. After seeing it, that description sounds like an excuse for the somewhat entertaining but mostly senseless film, which runs towards vengeance porn rather than a spaghetti western. However, given the subject matter, that might be enough.
First off, no one ever went wrong killing Nazis by the bucketload, in real life or on film, and Tarantino knows how to show every ghastly detail when he does. Only one of them has any sympathetic vibe at all; the rest of the German characters come straight out of central casting. Their deaths have a gruesome voyeuristic quality to them, but then again, they’re Nazis — the last villains that still play well as cardboard cutouts in cinema. The audience will cheer with every drop of blood that gets spilled, and who can blame them? One cannot deny the entertainment value of seeing them get their comeuppance, even while Tarantino badly mangles history and logic to do it. After all, as Indiana Jones said (before Spielberg and Lucas nuked the fridge), “I hate those guys.”
But that’s part of the problem. There’s almost no sport in it, no cleverness, and none of the wit that made Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction so compelling. In both, Tarantino made us care about what happened to otherwise despicable people. But in Inglorious Basterds, no one’s alive enough to care about, perhaps save one main character, whose plot resolution is thoroughly unsatisfying. Only one scene generated enough tension to make me sit on the edge of my seat, and unfortunately, it comes about halfway through the movie.
Even spaghetti westerns had more subtlety and character study than this, at least the good ones. Most of the Sergio Leone movies with Clint Eastwood dealt in interesting characters and anti-heroes, especially A Fistful of Dollars, which challenged the audience to pick any side at all. Part of Leone’s intent in making them was to move beyond the stock characters that had stultified American westerns, in which he succeeded, although didn’t get his artistic due for years afterward. Tarantino abandons the challenge to audiences and moves backward.
It’s still entertaining, even if it’s pretty disappointing. It runs too long, and the plot and subplots gather more holes as it goes along. The climax is a ridiculous scene that could only take place if all of the Nazis were complete idiots. That works in a comedy like Mel Brooks’ underappreciated remake of To Be or Not To Be, but not in a war drama. The film starts with a gritty scene of superb dramatic intensity, and winds up just north of Hogan’s Heroes.
The acting, though, is quite good, considering what the actors were given. Brad Pitt gives an amiable performance the leader of the group, and Christoph Waltz excels as the German SS officer Landa. Diane Kruger does well as a German actress/Allied mole, and Mélanie Laurent is luminous as Shoshana, one of the main hinges of the film. The rest of the cast won’t make much of an impression at all, thanks to Tarantino’s approach.
All in all, I’d recommend it as a rental or on one of the pay channels, or at best a discount theater event. If you just want to see Nazis killed almost non-stop and don’t expect anything else, buy the popcorn and enjoy.
Addendum: I expect to get a lot of disagreement on this one. Also, I didn’t give any plot points away, so if you choose to see it, this shouldn’t spoil any surprises.
Update: Cleaned up some style issues in the text.
Update II: Bruce Kesler has a more personal perspective, plus a story about Eli Roth.