Lackluster Spaghetti

Despite Tarantino's trademark violence and snappy dialogue, 'Django Unchained' is not one of his best

Quentin Tarantino unleashes all hell in Django Unchained, which features the gratuitous violence, uncanny dialogue and twisted sense of humor that has become his stock in trade. But it lacks the polish and craftsmanship he displayed in the Kill Bill movies and Inglourious Basterds.

Part of that sloppiness could be intentional; QT is summoning not just Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns, but also knockoffs and parodies of Leone's work. Indeed, the title character is inspired by Django, the hero of several Italian Westerns, and maybe a tad by Sukiyaki Western Django, a 2007 Takashi Miike flick in which Tarantino played a small role.

The story, though, is one of Tarantino's own noodling: In 1858, a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) is purchased by a German dentist, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). The dentist has found better-paying work as a bounty-hunter, and together, Django and King Schultz work their way from Texas across the South, killing outlaws and earning a ton of money. Even though Django technically becomes a freedman, Schultz convinces him to stay on as his second, promising that they will find and free Django's wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), at the end of their journey.

As he usually does, Tarantino brings an outside (and outsized) perspective to the story. This particular set of circumstances is seen through his eyes more than the characters' eyes. That's fine; it's hard to criticize him for being Quentin Tarantino. But hearing Jim Croce's "I Got a Name" over a montage of Django's training is pretty peculiar, and watching a mob of know-nothing Klansmen debating the merits of homemade white hoods is funny, but also momentum-killing. Those kinds of things divorce you from the real work Tarantino does here. And, hey, is that the entirely recognizable Jonah Hill with one of those hoods? Pretty cheesy.

Perhaps nothing undercuts Tarantino's story and his completely unique writing style quite like the N-word. The official tally by Variety is 109 utterances in Django Unchained, though it feels like twice that many. Is he saying that it's just another word? Or that the people who say it are worthy of our scorn or laughter? Hard to tell. After all, Tarantino, by using Jim Croce songs and other relatively modern touches, shouldn't feel impelled to drop the N-bomb 100 times in 165 minutes; there are ways around that. And those using the word can't all be lowlifes or ignoramuses (a common Hollywood out), because Django and the good doctor rely on it, too. Is it offensive? No. But it is a bit much, like the guy at every happy hour who still throws "That's what she said" into every story he overhears.

Django and Schultz eventually wind up in Mississippi, where plantation-owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio)—owner of CandieLand, obviously—and his servant, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), hold high-purse slave fights. They're also holding Django's wife. To get Broomhilda back, Django and Schultz connive their way to Candie's dinner table as potential fight-promoters.

DiCaprio gets this film's masterful monologue, much like David Carradine's unforgettable Superman speech in Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Waltz' interrogation at the beginning of Basterds. Those monologues are what Tarantino does best, and nobody in the past half-century does them nearly as colorfully, as hypnotically, or as well. It doesn't disappoint.

But on the whole? Django Unchained is an 80-minute story that goes twice as long. Tarantino is used to that, but the majority of his writing here is not as crisp or as focused, so the asides make the movie feel bloated. The characterizations are very strong, although DiCaprio is floating in a sea of ambiguous villainy until his big monologue. Django Unchained is not one of Tarantino's best, nor is it one of the best spaghetti Westerns you'll ever see.

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