Dir: Quentin Tarantino
With: Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio
Runtime: 165 minutes
QUENTIN Tarantino, the one-time wunderkind, hits the big 5-0 this year. If the helmer of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction was as big a part of your student days as late starts and early Madonna, that might make you feel very old indeed. Care not. As the delightfully unhinged Django Unchained shows, there is life in the old scamp yet.
The tale of a freed slave and a bounty hunter in the antebellum South is a spaghetti western with extra-hot sauce. Although in part an homage to the Django series made by Italian directors from the 1960s onwards, it is unmistakably Tarantino, and American, in its humour, zip and bent. Everything about this movie is excessive, from the violence to the running time of almost three hours, but when going over the top is done with this much zeal, a lot can be forgiven.
Django is played by Jamie Foxx (spot the original Django, Franco Nero, in a bit part). While being transported from one plantation to another in a slave convoy, Django's hellish trek is interrupted by Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). By the large tooth on a spring that sits atop his wagon, Dr King appears to be a dentist of the parish. In reality, he is a bounty hunter with a paper to pick up three desperadoes. As one of the few folk who can identify the trio, Django can lead Dr King (rather obvious nudge in the ribs there, Mr T) to a big pay day.
Waltz has been nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar, one of five awards for which the film is in the running, including best picture and best screenplay for Tarantino. The Austrian-born Waltz was by far the best thing in the otherwise patchy and self-indulgent Inglourious Basterds, and he duly carried away an Academy Award. He has a fair chance of repeating the feat this time, though in Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master) and Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln) some towering competition stands in his way.
Waltz suits Tarantino films so well because he is the opposite of loud and swaggering. He is the ice in Tarantino's whisky, the cold cloth on the forehead to his feverish style, the whisper to his bellow. Above all, he brings wit to the party. His Dr King Schultz is a powerhouse of laid-back wisdom. Bounty hunting, he tells Django, is "like slavery, it's a flesh-for-cash business". But Schultz is essentially a good man in bad times, and a fitting balance to Foxx's Django, a character with infinite reasons to be furious with the world. As a partnership, they go together like Butch and Sundance, but with bigger guns and an insatiable appetite to use them.
With their liaison proving lucrative, Schultz and Django embark on their riskiest mission of all – to rescue Django's wife from the dastardly Calvin Candie, a plantation owner. Played by Leonardo DiCaprio, Candie is a villain straight out of panto, with a devilishly pointed beard to match the moustache he manages to resist twirling. Samuel L Jackson joins in the caper as the faithful butler to DiCaprio's slave owner. Save for Kerry Washington as Django's wife, this is largely a boys own affair.
As we see from one gruesomely violent scene involving a slave who doesn't want to prize-fight any more, Candie is bad to the bone. It is one of several sequences in Django Unchained that are best viewed from between the fingers. Much of the violence is cartoonish, pulpy stuff, with enough blood and splatter being sloshed around to make even Sweeney Todd feel like a nice cup of tea and a lie down. It is all done in the best possible bad taste. Given the bad guys on the receiving end, this is one of those rare occasions in a Tarantino movie when excess is in order.
Though the story, performances and style work a treat, it is humour that makes Django Unchained the best Tarantino in years. The sense of glee shows itself in the riffs between characters, Waltz's gabby speeches and Django's deadpan rejoinders. One scene, involving a raiding party of rednecks, is a standout. Accompanying this verbal merry-go-round is a dizzily diverse soundtrack.
Then, of course, there is the N-word, which Tarantino sprays around like bullets, every one of them aimed at the heart of political correctness. In truth, it has become such a tired Tarantino shtick it has almost lost the power to shock.
The film suffers from having more endings than a James Brown concert, with Tarantino presumably having to be hauled off the film with a large hook by the end. The man himself even turns up in a cameo role. For some reason he is Australian. There's no sense in that, or in several other parts of Django Unchained, but never mind, this is the movie brat back to his cry-havoc best.