Italian Western meets blaxploitation revenge in Tarantino’s latest B-movie blow-up
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio
Jamie Foxx stars as Tarantino’s titular Django, a Southern slave who tries to escape brutal plantation life with his wife (Kerry Washington). Sadly, the couple are caught, branded as runaways and sold off in different states. While being frog-marched through Texas, Django is unexpectedly freed by Dr. King Schultz, an exceedingly polite German bounty hunter played by Christoph Waltz (the coolly sadistic Col. Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds). Seems that Django is one of the only people who can identify by sight a trio of nasty criminals with a sizable bounty on their heads. If Django agrees to help hunt them down, Schultz will set him free.
As in all of his films, Tarantino is simply trying to entertain himself; you can practically hear him cackling behind the camera on certain scenes. If we, the audience, happen to be collaterally amused along the way, so much the better. But it’s not his primary concern. With Tarantino, you’re either on board for the ride, or you’ve fallen off the back and been left in the dust. Django Unchained rattles from scene to scene, from mood to mood, from film genre to film genre with manic abandon. We are treated to some of the most ridiculously bloody gunfights ever lensed. (Seriously, Sam Peckinpah’s oeuvre has got nothing on these explosive squibs.) We get what is hands down the funniest Ku Klux Klan sequence in movie history (courtesy of Don Johnson and Jonah Hill). We spot cameos from Bruce Dern, Russ Tamblyn, Don Stroud, Tom Wopat, Lee Horsley, Tom Savini, James Remar and a bunch of other people only the most hardcore of movie nerds could possibly identify. And we bear witness to some of the hardest-hitting revenge-fueled blaxploitation action ever committed to celluloid. Throw Shaft, Superfly and Black Caesar into a blender and hit puree and you still wouldn’t end up with a cat as bad as Django. Seriously, if this movie had come out in 1973, Hollywood would still be cranking out blaxploitation flicks on a regular basis.
Aside from the insane, bullets-and-dynamite Western action, Tarantino touches on some mighty rough historical truths. He addresses slavery in a way it’s rarely been depicted on screen. There are moments where the violence sheds its entertainingly over-the-top edge and becomes stone-cold serious. If you want to build a righteously indignant black man as your protagonist, making him a pre-Civil War slave is a quick and easy way to do it. It’s actually surprising more ’70s-era blaxploitation films didn’t milk the Western angle (aside from 1972’s controversial shot-in-New-Mexico flick The Legend of Nigger Charley—a film I guarantee Tarantino has seen at least 20 times).
Django Unchained is no John Wayne version of the Old West, that’s for damn sure. It’s harsh, hilarious and violent as hell. It’s also unabashedly self-indulgent and quite long. (Let’s call it a breakneck 165 minutes.) But if you love movies the way Quentin Tarantino loves movies (which is more or less the way that coroners love the human body), feel free to get elbow-deep in this explosive Western movie mashup.