Welcome to the latest light-hearted romp from the wonderful mind of Quentin Tarantino, the man who brought you such family favorites as Reservoir Dogs and Inglourious Basterds. Coming up against Les Miz in the battle for holiday premier supremacy is Django Unchained starring Jamie Foxx as the titular anti-hero who seeks to rescue from the vile pits of the slave trade his treasured beloved with help from Christoph Waltz (Dr. King Shultz). Surrounded by much hype and burdened by expectations from QT loyalists like myself can this journey of violent retribution rise to the challenge?
No. QED. Now let me explain… this is a long movie, not unbearably long but one in which the comedy, gore and action are sparse and balanced out by sober meditations on the nature of humanity’s brutal nature. This makes every revelation, every advancement of the plot feel like it cost an unnecessarily high price of commitment to reach. The meandering method of storytelling would be more effective if we all didn’t know the story beat for beat from the trailers and the many similar films that preceded it, the crawl isn’t helped at all by the movie’s star who is certainly capable of being a good and heartfelt actor but spends much of the his screen time brooding menacingly while Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie (an equal parts charming and menacing villain) garner most of the audience’s attention.
When it comes to violence in Django there are two varieties; the literally explosive shootouts and the grueling and graphic depictions of cruelty against slaves. The gun battles are fairly exciting and feature cannon bursts of squishy bits which allow the underwhelming impacts of a wrist-spring mounted derringer to act as a an effective sucker punch that’s easy to appreciate. Still, there are few of these sequences and there are sparsely spread. You want more, you expect more but up until the last half hour of film you’re left in anticipation which will be poorly paid off. The many beatings, murders, and mutilations endured by the black contingent of the cast are historically accurate and are handled with appropriate weight but make the rest of the movie feel strangely mellow.
Much of the comedy comes from sight gags or is supplied by Germanic banter of Dr. Shultz up until about the two hour mark where Samuel L. makes his first appearance as the head house n***** who make wise crack after wisecrack embodying the racially deprecating nature of his source material. While we’re on the subject they do say the N word a lot in this movie and while there has been some huff raised about this fact, 1. It’s more the ‘ah’ variety than the ‘er’ variety for whatever that’s worth, 2. I’ve heard rap albums that use it more, society can deal, and 3. It’s a movie about SLAVERY in the SOUTH in 1858, that’s just an honest representation of the times. As for insensitive timing in the face of Sandy Hook, well you know what you’re getting into and if you’re going to be insulted by cinematic violence then you shouldn’t have bought a ticket in the first place.
My personally biggest gripe, however, is that as a Tarantino fan watching a Tarantino film I’m missing all of the tried and true tropes that got me buying a ticket in the first place. Where’s the trunk shot? Where’s the foot shot? Where’s the awesome soundtrack and memorable lines? For that matter where’s the snappy and human dialogue that humanizes the characters you accepted as clichés at first glance? Most painfully where’s the ass kicking heroine who demands respect and isn’t worried about breaking a few faces to get it? Zoe Bell make a ‘blink and you miss it’ appearance and even the QT cameo, along side Michael Parks, feels thrown in and half hearted taking steam away from the movie’s climax. If all of these things were thrown in I would be a little happier but there’s still a lot of problems with the movie and even taking past credit and my hopes and dreams from the equation you still have a film that can’t decide if it’s a western revenge flick or a painfully poignant pseudo documentary answer to Gone With the Wind.
There’s a lot to like, don’t get me wrong. Every actor and actress brings their A-game and if all of the best scenes were jammed together you’d have an hour or so of really awesome entertainment. Yet it’s the exposition that needs refinement as way too much story needs to take place in order to transition us from plot point to plot point, with a bit more fun in the first half and a lot more tension in the second an extra hour and a half could have been tacked on transforming this into another two part odyssey. Going the other direction a couple of montages or flashbacks might have trimmed 45 minutes of fat or left room for more of the light hearted moments that would have made all of the sadism more significant. But at the end of the flick it feels like a extra month or two spent on the script would have gone a long way towards creating another hit in the catalogue. Unfortunately this is really going to be the red-headed step child that can’t measure up to its big brothers and sisters or stand on its own merit.
Three and a half out of five loaded chambers.