By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Leave it to crazy genius filmmaker Quentin Tarantino to get the whole country cursing. Which essentially is what we’re doing whenever we pronounce the name of his great new action-suspense-fantasy, “Inglourious Basterds.” At once insanely novel, self-indulgent, subliminally abstract and brilliant, it is also wonderfully suspect on several counts.
It all revolves around a tall tale of a wish…a hopeful castle in the sky. Rather than mostly being ignored by the West during WWII, European Jewry is given retributive validity. In this faux version of history, fully aware of the German atrocities, the U.S. dispatches a special unit of Jewish commandoes to spread terror among the Nazis.
Dropped into occupied France, only the leader of this “Dirty Dozen”-derived group of terrorist-assassins doesn’t emanate from one of the original tribes of Israel. Fact is, Lt. Aldo Raine, sensationally portrayed with tobacco-chawing charm by Brad Pitt, numbers Mountain Man Jim Bridger and a handful of Cherokee among his ancestors.
This may explain the title guerrillas’ M.O. To the horror of those spared so that they may tell of the brutality they’ve witnessed, captured German soldiers are slaughtered and scalped, but not necessarily in that order. If they’re really unlucky, they get to be clubbed to death by the bat-wielding Bear Jew (Eli Roth) while his confederates hoot and holler.
Thus the Basterds, as they are soon referred to in trepidatious tones from Berlin to Paris, manufacture fear. And in the process, it makes for vicarious gloat. Never mind that the beast is long escaped from Hades and that even twelve million more wrongs can’t make a right. Tarantino unapologetically offers up on a shiny silver platter the oddest vengeance.
It’s allowed and applauded…what may one day be seen as cinema’s biggest guilty thrill. They are, after all, Nazis. And while in real battle once protected by the Geneva Convention, in fiction they are the last bastion for political incorrectness. So say what you will. It is rather doubtful any Nazis will openly take umbrage at their treatment here.
Still, it would all ultimately wear thin were it not for the fantastic suspense yarn auteur Tarantino weaves through the visceral apocalypse. Etching several beautifully measured scenes, each one more pregnant with seat-edged tension than the last, this is where he firmly places himself among America’s most important living filmmakers.
It’s not just that his storylines and concepts seemingly come out of left field. It’s the ability to bring them full circle in his inimitable, shock and awe style. And ever so subtly, whether by intention or blissful, crazy-as-a-fox by-product, there is satiric wisdom in his explosive diatribes. Don’t look now, but the nihilism has matured into social comment.
For film buffs there is an extra gift. Tarantino’s love of movies makes for a perennial celebration of the medium, whether by reference, nuance or sheer exultation. Like a racecar driver who conceitedly knows he’s sitting in the goods (his filmmaking skills analogous to the controls), he presses deep the pedal with knowing power and flair.
That he gets superb performances from his actors doesn’t hurt. Case in point, Christoph Waltz as Colonel Hans Landa, the notorious ‘Jew Hunter’ and inarguable star of “Inglourious Basterds.” Hate for this villain germinates in his interrogative, opening tête-à-tête with a French farmer (Denis Menochet). It could make an old V.P. cringe.
The scene is worthy of drama class duplication and dissection. In it, the writer-director gives us a glimpse into the dark soul of what lies ahead, whilst also conveying the too often tragic dilemmas that confound humanity. The only constant is evil. It just is, like a force of physics. And, in the hands of the Basterds, can be used for good, if you will.
Meanwhile, everyone’s a bit nuts if not mad as hatters, their motivations all over the map. That their quirkiness and the sheer whims of chance will impact major events staggers us. But you can bet that before all is said and done, auspicious push will come to grandiose shove. And in signature Tarantino style, intents will magically converge.
Without giving too much away, suffice it to note a French movie theater owner’s plan of reprisal just happens to coincide with the British high command’s scheme to end the war. Our boys are called in to lend their cutthroat skills to the exciting gambit. And it is here that the director takes a flyer. The big windup glaringly begs our suspension of disbelief.
While heretofore grounding each of his story’s chimeras in reality, an implausible German laxness depicted in the climactic scenes goes unexplained. But we’ve gone this far. And gosh, it’s a fantasy. So we opt to enjoy by letting the established momentum speed us over the filmic pothole and forgive “Inglourious Basterds” its few illegitimacies.
“Inglourious Basterds,” rated R, is a Weinstein Company release directed by Quentin Tarantino and stars Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz and Melanie Laurent. Running time: 153 minutes
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