Once upon a time in Nazi-Occupied France… the ruthlessly efficient Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) tracks down and brutally exterminates a family of Jewish refugees hiding in a country farmhouse, from which the sole survivor, teenager Shoshanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) escapes into the woods. Elsewhere, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) assembles a crack team of Jewish-American soldiers, nicknamed “the Bastards”, to wage a guerrilla campaign that will strike terror into the Nazi regime. This they do most successfully, by scalping Nazi soldiers, springing turncoat German Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger) out of prison, or bashing enemy skulls to a bloody pulp - an act which earns baseball bat-wielding Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth, director of Hostel) his nickname of “the Bear Jew.”
Four years later, hidden behind blonde dye and an alias, Shoshanna runs a cinema in Paris where she attracts the admiration of Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a German war hero with a record amount of kills to his name. Zoller is both the subject and star of an Audie Murphy-style, flag-waving biopic masterminded by none other than Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth). Smitten with Shoshanna, he arranges for the premiere to be held at her cinema, which sparks in her the idea of setting an explosive trap that will end the war. Little does she know that is exactly the purpose behind “Operation Kino”, a mission that teams the Bastards with British aide Lt. Archie Knox (Michael Fassbender) and film star-turned-double agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger). But with Landa lurking on the sidelines, how can these intertwining revenge schemes possibly succeed?
Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti western-influenced WW2 opus is incredibly hard to evaluate, because the areas in which it succeeds are achieved with an inspiring degree of panache and cinematic artistry, while its few deficiencies are nagging in the extreme. Critics who choose to dismiss the film outright are as off-base as any QT fan-boys who lavish it with mindless praise. Inglourious Basterds is that rare film that positively demands multiple viewings in order to best assess its soul, the meaning that resides beneath layers of film buff in-jokery, verbal fireworks and gut-wrenching gore.
Rest assured there is meaning to be found and a very cunning agenda at work here. For this is a self-reflective fairytale, a fabrication drawn from disparate war flicks, adventure stories and sundry other influences that addresses the power of cinema, propaganda and indeed far-fetched storytelling. Its most potent metaphor - arguably the finest Tarantino has ever concocted - being one character’s use of actual celluloid as a weapon amidst an audacious finale that effectively rewrites the end of World War Two. Sticklers for historical accuracy will have conniption fits - and perhaps justifiably - but the sheer ballsiness of rewriting history and making that the whole point commands a certain level of respect.
Early reports, right down to the misleading teaser-trailer, painted this a meat-headed action movie. While sporting its fair share of blood and bullets, in truth, on an action level the film is liable to disappoint. There are no rip-roaring set-pieces here to match the artful bloodshed of Kill Bill (2003) or the visceral kick of something akin to Where Eagles Dare (1969) or Enzo G. Castellari’s antecedent-in-name-only Inglorious Bastards (1977). Brad Pitt and his Bastards disappear from the narrative for long stretches at a time when it might have been more satisfying to follow them wreaking bloody havoc over the intervening years. What Tarantino does instead is craft dialogue-driven set-pieces that tease, thrill and devastate as skilfully as Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma or any other visually driven suspense master. The opening scene-setter is masterfully handled, tipping its hat to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) as the odious Landa toys with his prey like a hawk, while midway Knox, Stiglitz and Von Hammersmark find themselves at the centre of a barnstorming Mexican standoff that weaves a nod to Cinderella of all things, and leads to a heartbreaking payoff.
While Tarantino is obviously enamoured with his characters - Shoshanna, in particular - there is a callousness at work, an absence of humanity that hinders his attempts at pathos. Diane Kruger and Michael Fassbender are wonderful - in roles originally intended for Nastassja Kinski and Simon Pegg - but cavalierly dealt with while Tarantino favours Til Schweigger’s S.S. serial killer with his own mini-movie/origin story, even though he proves almost irrelevant to the narrative. Also the cruelty exhibited by Aldo Raine and the Bastards strains for a certain level of detached cool that leaves little room for any camaraderie with their German and British collaborators. Although Tarantino does make us feel for those characters who don’t make it, Raine and co. shrug off various tragedies in a somewhat dispiriting manner.
As everybody knows, Tarantino is largely influenced by Hong Kong and European exploitation, evident in that patented “ten-movies-for-the-price-of-one” filmmaking style. It’s a style I’ve praised several times on these pages as a liberating form of storytelling, but lacks a certain fluidity here as not all the disparate pieces gel satisfactorily. Part of that is down to brevity, which sounds ridiculous when you’re talking about a movie that runs two hours plus, but we are short-changed in a few areas. Tarantino condensed this film from script that originally ran to mini-series length and viewers will pick up on some missed opportunities and sources of untapped drama. Most notably, that Shoshanna and the Bastards never meet, an encounter that might have leant more humanity to Aldo’s plot strand and proven more compelling than her relationship with lover Marcel (Jacky Ido) which is scarcely explored.
Performance-wise, it’s lesser known actors like Christoph Waltz (relishing every scene he’s in) and Mélanie Laurent (the movie’s heart and soul) who steal the show, although it must be said that against the odds, Brad Pitt is on fine form. His Southern fried monologues are utterly hilarious which, coupled with that tantalisingly unexplained lynching scar on Raine’s neck, leave you craving a whole movie about Aldo Raine. Or on the flipside, leave you bemoaning why his character is disconnected from the weightier dramatic strand of this movie. Additionally, and curiously for a writer as sharp as Tarantino, the comeuppance dealing coda is predicated upon one hitherto shrewd villain doing something uncharacteristally stupid.
Tarantino’s typically pick and mix soundtrack melds perfectly with the onscreen action. Even his surprise inclusion of theme from Cat People (1982) performed by David Bowie works very well in context. Ever the cinefile, the script is peppered with references to masters of German cinema like G.W. Pabst, in-joke character names and even an actor portraying Emil Jannings. The fiery finale alludes to what might be popular culture taking its revenge upon the phoney art spawned by a fascist regime - equating Nazis with close-minded aesthetes as ushers machine-gun fleeing cinemagoers. Or it might just be a kick-ass place to stage a bloody massacre scene - one can never be certain with Tarantino and this debate is liable to rage on for quite some time. One thing is sure, as challenging cinema Inglourious Basterds is impossible to ignore.
American writer/director and one of the most iconic filmmakers of the 1990s. The former video store clerk made his debut in 1992 with the dazzling crime thriller Reservoir Dogs, which mixed razor sharp dialogue, powerhouse acting and brutal violence in controversial style. Sprawling black comedy thriller Pulp Fiction was one of 1994's biggest hits and resurrected John Travolta's career, much as 1997's Elmore Leonard adaptation Jackie Brown did for Pam Grier.