Right from the start, Quentin Tarantino’s (“Pulp Fiction,” “Kill Bill“) comedic war thriller “Inglourious Basterds” oozes with the acclaimed writer/director’s unique style. Long camera takes, lots of engaging, realistic dialogue, fast-paced plotting, witty, offbeat humor and a sense of foreboding all come together to build the suspense, until it explodes in a violent climax of pure, unadulterated entertainment. And with the wild premise of a Jewish-American group of soldiers (the Basterds) spreading fear into the Third Reich by killing and scalping Nazis, the film couldn’t come from anyone other than Tarantino.
Yet contrary to what the marketing campaign may have you believe, the story isn’t solely about this bad-ass squad of Nazi exterminators. Instead, the movie is divided into five chapters, each one concentrating on a specific situation and set of characters that connect by the end, a wise narrative configuration that keeps it from ever becoming stale.
The first focuses on SS Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), aka the “Jew Hunter,” as he calmly interrogates a French farmer about the Jewish family he’s hiding underneath the floorboards. This opening sequence gradually racks up the tension all the way as Landa closes in on the peasant, like a ravenous wolf circling its cornered prey, ready to devour it entirely. It’s one of the best scenes Tarantino’s ever done, and a perfect hook to begin the film.
Chapter two introduces the always amusing Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and his enthusiastic Basterds, out on an unbelievably entertaining escapade of Nazi-slaughtering. Following that in the more relaxed third segment, Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), a young Jewish woman operating a Paris movie theater, is courted by Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), the star of the newest Nazi propaganda film. Attempting to win her over, Fredrick arranges for Shosanna’s cinema to hold the movie’s prestigious premiere, with Hitler in attendance. Then in the fourth section, several Basterds rendezvous with a German-British spy, only to find themselves trapped in a bar with a group of Nazi soldiers. This leads to another purposefully lengthy confrontation of wits and words, with a resolution so unexpected it’s nothing short of stylistic genius.
And finally, in the phenomenal finale, both the Basterds and Shosanna attempt to assassinate the Fuhrer at the premiere screening, while Landa slowly discovers and tries to foil the scheme. As the plot lines intertwine, action, humor, surprises and intense thrills all combine into one perfectly crafted package, making for the best film since “The Dark Knight.”
By all means, Tarantino has truly accomplished something extraordinary here. It’s been forty years since war movies commonly fit under the description of “fun,” and it’s because “Basterds” is so reminiscent of old-school, men-on-a-mission WWII flicks like “The Dirty Dozen” and “The Great Escape” that it’s such a blast. And like those films, don’t expect any themes about the horrors of war; “Inglourious Basterds” is strictly for entertainment purposes.
However, this is not an action film. Where most war movies would have a long shoot out or set piece, Tarantino usually goes with an extended discussion between two opposing forces, comprised of slow-build, wonderfully written dialogue that produces an edge-of-your-seat suspense alongside fantastic humor. Once the breaking point is reached, one of those quick, comically outrageous spurts of violence follows that Tarantino is so well-known for. Scalpings, baseball bat head-bashing and forehead Swastika-carving are shown in full, bloody detail, so the squeamish may want to sit this one out, especially those unprepared to laugh at such gruesome acts.
These violent actions are usually ordered by the one-dimensional, “Natt-zee killin'” Aldo “the Apache,” who’s probably Tarantino’s most crass and hysterical creation yet. In another role he’s obviously having a blast with, like “Burn After Reading” and the “Ocean’s” trilogy, Pitt gives a performance that’s impossible not to love. Yes, once again he has a southern accent, but this isn’t like Benjamin Button‘s slow, purposeful, slightly irritating drawl; he speaks with coarse, straight-up redneck Tennessee diction. Every single one of his lines is funny (even when they shouldn’t be) thanks to his uproarious delivery, and Pitt provides some of the most gut-busting laughs in the movie.
Col. Landa, on the other hand, is a far more insidious being. In a truly mesmerizing display of acting, Waltz infuses Landa with a charming, charismatic and subtly relentless personality, making him not only a dastardly pleasure to watch but also the most engrossing Nazi since Ralph Fiennes in “Schindler’s List.” The cunning and intelligent Landa ranks among the best of Tarantino’s characters, and Waltz is guaranteed at least an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor come awards season.
Now even though Pitt receives top billing, Waltz has as much if not more screen time than him, and therein lies my only criticism of the film – I wanted more of Aldo and the Basterds. The two-and-a-half hour runtime flies by, so another 10-20 minutes of these guys wouldn’t have hurt, especially since they’re gone for large chunks of the movie due to its segmented structure. Hopefully this will be remedied on DVD in the rumored director’s cut, but if not, it’s a small complaint in an otherwise perfect film.
To put it simply, you need to see “Inglourious Basterds.” This sensational, hilarious, multilingual dialogue-heavy, genre-bending thrill ride is Tarantino’s best singular effort since “Pulp Fiction,” and a true testament to the excitement of movies. Any of his fans will love it, and anyone feeling up to game should enjoy this masterpiece as well. Without a doubt the summer’s best picture, “Basterds” is filmmaking at its inspired finest.
Who would’ve ever thought Nazis could be so much fun?
Four out of Four Stars