Welcome back to Tarantino-town, where everything is derivative, the cinematic in-jokes are endemic, and the love of bare feet is implicit. For film fans, Tarantino-town is a delightful destination, but for genre film fans, Tarantino-town is paradise. There, our guilty pleasures are elevated to the status of (pop) art, with welcome appearances of many a suitably cast cult fave.
In the past, Tarantino-town has given tours of such suburbs as crime-ville, blaxploitation-burg, exploitation-land, kum foo falls (sorry, still really can’t call it kung fu since Q.T. didn’t understand enough of it to present it) and war-rock. Now, welcome to western way, or, more specifically, spaghetti-western way — inspired by the Italian films featuring the nihilistic character of Django.
Django, like kung fu cinema’s Wong Fei-hong, has come to represent his genre. But while Wong has appeared in more than a hundred films, Django has appeared in little more than thirty, and is not always the same character. Also, while Wong has been played by around six actors (including Jackie Chan and Jet Li), Django has been played by seventeen. But the most important one in Tarantino-town was the original, starring Franco Nero, directed in 1966 by the great Sergio Corbucci.
Corbucci is one of those directors, like Kenji Misumi, whose genius was always overshadowed by a more-established, more internationally recognized auteur. In Corbucci’s case, that would be the “other Sergio,” Sergio Leone (in Misumi’s case, it was Akira Kurosawa). But any film fan who saw these men’s best immediately knew they were dealing with a cinema savant. Their films were not only bloody and brutal, but also joyously imaginative.
Which brings us back to Tarantino-land, and Django Unchained, Q.T.’s often brilliant, always propulsive homage to Corbucci specifically, Leone spiritually, and spaghetti westerns in general. Although worshipping at Corbucci’s altar, QT borrows a page from Leone, who was one of the few directors who used genre conventions to tell a bigger, more historically meaningful, story in such films as The Good the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West. In Leone’s case, that was the civil war and the incorporation of America. In Tarantino’s case, it’s U.S. slavery.
The violent traditions of the spaghetti western are superbly suited to the torture-as-usual realities of 1800’s slave trading. By making his Django a freed slave (Jamie Foxx) seeking to find and free his wife (Kerry Washington) from a venal plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio) with the help of an occasionally wily bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz), QT has an all access pass to portray blood-splattered punishment and gory retribution in such a way that audiences can “enjoy” them. Any more serious-minded films (I’m looking at you, Amistad) would be stopped dead in its tracks (as Amistad was) by the level of inhumanity that was slavery’s norm.
So I admire Django Unchained unreservedly. And for a hundred and thirty minutes, the movie was everything I could have wanted, with superb filmmaking, acting, and those cult film fave cameos I alluded to before (including Don Johnson, Franco Nero, Tom Savini, a barefoot Zoe Bell, Tom Wopat, Don Stroud, Russ and Amber Tamblyn, Bruce Dern, Jonah Hill, and Lee Horsley). But Django Unchained is a hundred and sixty-five minutes.
I would think that anyone, even lovers of the entire film, would have to concede that the actual climax comes at the 130 minute mark. And had it ended shortly thereafter, I would be better able to accept the catalyst of that climax, which I still feel is pretty out of character for that climax catalyster, who, up until that point, had shown no signs of being as suicidal as he would have had to have been to initiate the climax the way he does.
No question QT builds to that climatic moment beautifully, and, had the movie concluded shortly thereafter in a flurry of further brilliance, the wildly incongruous behavior of the man in question would have been forgiven (at least by me). Furthermore, had Tarantino followed that deeply questionable behavior with a half-hour that was consistent with the plot and tone that preceded it, I would still be unreservedly singing the film’s praises.
But he does not. Instead, he follows an admittedly effective and effecting torture sequence with a digression that is contrived at least, and really unlikely at most. Adding salt to the wound, QT uses this excess, unconvincing, sequence as an excuse to appear in the film as an Australian slaver. Thankfully, his performance isn’t at its usual hyper, grating level, and, indubitably, it does serve as a clear warning sign that, from here on, almost all audience expectation should be relinquished.
Rather than stage an exciting, thunderous finale shootout, QT has our hero find his heroine as if by GPS, lines up all the enemy ducks in an easy shooting-gallery row, and then concludes his epic with the hoariest of clichés: the huge explosion with no shrapnel or shock wave.
Yes, okay, I’ll agree that he seemed to be trying to portray Django as mythic at that point, and wrap everything up in a “just kidding, wasn’t that fun, drive safe,” bow (including an equestrian variation on a football end zone celebratory dance), but I would have far preferred consistency of character, story, and tone.
Don’t get me wrong. I had a great two hours plus vacation in Tarantino-town, and am looking forward to returning whenever he throws open the gates again. I just wish that last thirty-minute kiss-off was as sweet as everything before it.
SPECIAL POST SCREENING REVELATION!
Ruminating on the sudden tonal (not to mention wardrobe) shift in the last fifteen minutes of Django Unchained, it suddenly occurred to me where I had seen Jamie Foxx’s attitude, outfit, and even horsemanship before.
He was “doing” Will Smith’s James T. West from the abortive movie adaptation of the hit TV show The Wild Wild West … right down to the man’s spangly vest and shades!
Tarantino made no secret that he originally wanted Will Smith for Django, but is he mad enough to wrench the entire finale of his new film simply to wink at Will?
Is Django Unchained‘s last fifteen minutes a secret prequel to Will’s Wild Wild West?!
Mmmmmm … could be! What do you think?