Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained.
As you'd expect from director Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained, is an ultra-violent, highly entertaining movie. All of his films have that in common, but he changes genres frequently. This time it's a combination of Spaghetti Western and blaxploitation film. His work isn't for everyone. You need a strong stomach, for a start, but fans of the director's shouldn't be disappointed. It's a little more uneven than his greatest films, but still delivers the goods.
Tarantino has joked in interviews that Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington's characters in this film are the great-great-great grandparents of John Shaft. Washington's last name is even given as Von Shaft. It has no bearing on the story, but should give anyone who's familiar with the Shaft films a general idea of what to expect from Jamie Foxx as Django.
The story begins in Texas, in 1858. Bounty Hunter, King Schultz (Waltz) frees Django from his slave-owners because he needs his help locating some fugitives that Django can identify. The German born, former dentist and the newly freed black man, strike up a friendship and a partnership. They make a deal that if Django will work with Schultz for the winter, in the spring they will travel to Mississippi and free Django's wife, who is owned by the vile Calvin Candie (DiCaprio). Of course, things don't go as smooth as they plan and they leave a trail of bloody corpses in their wake.
At 2 hours and 45 minutes, this is Tarantino's longest film. Whether or not this is because of the death of Sally Menke, who edited all of his previous films, I don't know. Certainly, there's plenty of room for trimming. The tone is that of a light-hearted, bloody action film and it doesn't need to be epic-sized. In particular, the final third of the movie, that focuses on DiCaprio's character, drags at times. It feels almost as if, because they hired DiCaprio (this is the first time in 16 years that he's appeared in a movie where he didn't get top-billing), they want to get him on the screen as much as possible. It also doesn't help that the ending is dragged out so that instead of just one climactic gunfight, there are two. Is the second included because if it wasn't, then Tarantino wouldn't get his cameo? I don't know about that either, but it wouldn't hurt the story if he'd been cut.
It is definitely the first half of the movie that is the most entertaining. Schultz is an intriguing character. He doesn't seem particularly threatening when you look at him, but he's good at his job and has a casual flair in his execution of it. Some of the best scenes are between he and Django as he teaches his new protege the ways of the bounty hunter. Django has less of a personality. For most of the movie he's a cipher, not really coming into his own until the end.
The tone is light and even outright comedic during the first half, particularly during one scene played straight out for laughs featuring a group of Klu Klux Klan members. When the story moves to Mississippi, it takes a darker turn that makes those earlier scenes seem as though they're from a different movie.
With at least 30 minutes trimmed from the running time, I might have given this movie four stars. As it is though, while it entertains, it winds up feeling a little flabby.
Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained.
With his eighth movie as writer/director since 1992, Quentin Tarantino once again proves himself the most original and talented filmmaker of the past two decades. Django Unchained is colorful, vibrant, ultra-violent and terrifically entertaining. It may last nearly three hours but this is one movie that moves along at a brisk enough pace that you won't notice the lengthy running time.
It is filled with Tarantino's usual cast of memorable characters, unexpected cameos, and sly nods to other films that inspired this one. The dialogue is witty and the violence completely over-the-top. It takes several genres and mashes them together to form an entirely new one. Tarantino himself has dubbed it a “southern”. In short it is exactly what you would expect from the maverick filmmaker.
Although Leonardo DiCaprio is getting the lion's share of the attention among the supporting cast, the real standout is Samuel L. Jackson as DiCaprio's equally evil house servant. Wearing makeup that makes his visage truly frightening, and hiding his sadistic nature behind obsequious manners, he is a truly memorable villain. One that's far more terrifying than the baby-faced DiCaprio.
As with all of Tarantino's movies it features an eclectic variety of music. There are several instrumentals from other movies such as Two Mules for Sister Sara and They Call Me Trinity. He also uses old recordings by the likes of Jim Croce and a song featuring Tupac Shakir and James Brown. Rick Ross and John Legend both wrote and recorded new songs for the movie as well. The songs pop up mostly in between Django's and Dr. Schultz's adventures, while they are traveling across the open country on horseback.
Jamie Foxx is cool as hell as the titular hero. His story is a revenge fantasy against slave masters. He doesn't speak much but his swagger is solid gold. As Scott wrote, the German/American dentist cum bounty hunter played by Christoph Waltz is an intriguing character. Waltz plays him with a winning combination of bluster and moral authority. Dr. Schultz represents white man's collective conscious, standing alongside Django against the tyranny of slavery. He and the freed slave make an unusual, but highly effective, team.
Scott mentioned the scene with the KKK, organized by Big Daddy (played by Don Johnson dressed like Colonel Sanders). In the film they are called “The Regulators” since the Klan wasn't formed until after the Civil War. I guess that is part of the joke. But then historical dates aren't Tarantino's strength as he opens the movie by setting the date as 1858 and stating that it's two years before the Civil War, when in fact the war didn't begin until April of 1861. Still the sight of Klan members complaining about not being able to see through the sacks they are wearing over their heads is quite amusing.
As he did for WWII movies with Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino has taken the western genre and turned it on its head. The result is a brash, energetic and thoroughly entertaining movie. One of the year's best.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz and Samuel L jackson in Django Unchained
Actually Patrick, I did notice the lengthy running time. As Scott wrote, it has two climactic gun fights. It felt like it was ready to end right after the one at the plantation. All of the main players are there. Django and his wife have been reunited. It was a good place to conclude the story. Also, the gang of Klan members arguing over the sacks with holes cut out for eyes is hilarious, but it does not serve the story in any real manner.
I have often found Tarantino's films to be too long, with some of his scenes becoming a story unto themselves. His plots are often meandering. I had no idea where Django and Schultz were half of the time. We see them in snow, mountains, woods, prairies and then back again. All of a sudden they arrive in Tennessee. This was not the first western to confuse me geographically, and with Tarantino's film insight, maybe he did that on purpose to make a point about the absurdity of how some westerns were filmed?
One of the best pieces of the story for me was that of the character Stephen, played by Samuel l Jackson. Stephen is an Uncle Tom slave owned by Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. He agrees and laughs at whatever Candie says or does. Later however, we see that Stephen has his ways of manipulating Candie. At one point we are even meant to question who in fact is in charge, the plantation owner or his personal slave/butler.
I do not view Tarantino as a perfect film maker, but he is and always has been a shot of creative steroids into the buttock of Hollywood. He makes films with his unique vision of snappy dialogue and in your face violence. He adores the "B" films of the 1970s and has spent much of his career emulating them.
One ballsy things he did was to employ the word "nigger" in the script. It is spoken in Django 108 or 109 times, depending on which blog you want to trust. I have not heard it used this often since Blazing Saddles (1974). Perhaps the use of the word is just Tarantino making another nod to that decade. Anyone who has ever read Mark Twain, knows it was a common term when this film takes place and anyone who watched film and television in the 1970s knows it was used then as well. Kudos to Tarantino for not changing history for the sake of making the politically correct police happy.
I am not a big Jamie Foxx fan. He is okay, but I do not get his charm, be it comedy or drama. Too often in films he seems to merely stare, leaving us to guess what emotion he is expressing. Here however, he makes a great action star. His vacant stare serves his character well as we are never sure what is coming next. He is not playing the first black cowboy to appear in a movie, but he sure does make a good one. He looks very natural on a horse and the hat works for him. He should do another western. Maybe a remake of 100 Rifles with Jennifer Lopez.
Photos © Copyright The Weinstein Company (2012)