Italian Western meets blaxploitation revenge in Tarantino’s latest B-movie blow-up
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio
Quentin Tarantino may be America’s greatest pulp film historian. He’s certainly the greatest one actually making movies—as opposed to simply writing guidebooks on obscure cinema. His films are crammed with so many in-jokes, homages and references to previous cult films it would take an NYU grad student a week just to alphabetize them. Tarantino’s newest, Django Unchained, is the second film (after 2009’s war-torn Inglourious Basterds) to present itself as a remake of an Italian film. It isn’t really. Like Inglourious Basterds, this one’s both too original and too cannibalistic of far too many sources to look anything like a remake.
The first Django was a bruising 1966 Spaghetti Western about a granite-faced, coffin-toting gunfighter played by Franco Nero (né Francesco Sparanero). The film was so popular in America that dozens of imported Italian Westerns simply had the Django name appended to their title, no matter who the lead gunslinger might actually be (e.g. Django Kills Softly; Django the Bastard; Django, Prepare a Coffin; Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot). The “joke” of Django Unchained is that it’s not a remake of Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 film. Instead, Tarantino has crafted his own unofficial, 1970-era knockoff. To that, he’s added a healthy dose of temporally appropriate blaxploitation. The result is a mad mulligatawny of B-grade movie history.
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.
The partnership between Schultz and Django proves to be quite lucrative, and the duo opt to continue in the bounty hunting business. But our man Django has got a mission on his mind. He’s aiming to find his wife, who was sold off at a slave auction in Mississippi. Since 1840s Mississippi is no place for a gun-wielding black man, and since he already has a strong distaste for slavery, Dr. Schultz agrees to help Django rescue the fair maiden. All they’ve got to do now is get past the private army of a dilettante plantation owner (played with nasty relish by Leonardo DiCaprio).
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.
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