Went to see Quentin Tarantino’s latest offering at FACT in Liverpool last night. I’m always a bit nervous about Tarantino films – I really enjoyed Reservoir Dogs take on the Heist movie but his take on martial arts in Kill Bill just wasn’t my cup of tea. So I was curious and a bit nervous about how Inglorious Basterds would tackle the war movie genre.
If there is a spectrum of war movies with the ultra serious, historical recreation style at one end and the action/western war movies at the other Saving Private Ryan is going to sit towards the historical end of the scale and Inglorious Basterds is throwing itself in a Robert Rodriguez influenced leap from the other end. This is a war movie in the vein of The Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare or the cheap straight to video imitators they spawned.
It is not however a Robert Rodriguez style action movie. There are surprisingly few action sequences. This is a film where the snappy dialogue dripped from QT’s pen onto the page and into the actors’ mouths. In many scenes the dialogue is a slow, flirtatious dance with the audience building the tension towards inevitable violence before it is unleashed as a short, violent release. Two of the action scenes feel more like impressionist collages of images than story telling; at the end you’re left with a feeling for what happened but the actual events aren’t spelt out in John Wooish slow motion.
I’ve read a couple of reviews of the film that have slated Brad Pitt’s performance as Lieutenant Aldo Raine for being wooden. That’s like slating his performance as Mickey O’Neil in Snatch for being incomprehensible. He’s playing the kind of American heroic leader found in so many of the action films of the genre. Stiff, stoic and determined. By its very nature his performance needs a wooden quality to work. He’s not Tom Hanks’ Capt. John H. Miller, a thinking man who has gone to war. He’s a John Wayne or Lee Marvin character who may not be educated but wants to kill the enemy and he’s the type who doesn’t care about following the rules while he does it. The section of the film where he impersonates an Italian is brilliant for the very fact that it is Raine’s impersonating an Italian, not Pitt who would, I suspect, put in a note perfect performance in an Italian film if he decided to appear in one.
The rest of the Basterds don’t get much character development. In that respect this isn’t the Dirty Dozen or the Magnificent Seven. A few of them are given a shtick to hang their character on. While it’s their name that headlines the film its other characters who the story is built around – Mélanie Laurent’s Shosanna Dreyfus her lover the little used Marcel, Diane Kruger’s Bridget von Hammersmark and Michael Fassbender’s Stiff upper lipped Brit with a knowledge of German Cinema Lt. Archie Hicox. The films stand out performance comes from Christoph Waltz, his Col. Hans Landa is the opposite of Pitt’s Raine intelligent, well spoken, cunning and evil. If Pitt was as charming, intelligent or funny Waltz’s performance would lose its shine. The performance is hammy but knowingly so and I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t pick up a good clutch of awards and a pile of roles as a result.
The film’s pulpy plot is multi threaded and teeters precariously on losing its way but never slips into incoherence. It is peppered with scenes from the genre – the interrogation, Hitler ranting, the briefing and meeting a spy in a bar. The bar scene in particular stood out for me as it sets up a tense confrontation driven by the dialogue and a sense of inevitability inherited from all the action war movies that have gone before it.
This isn’t a film for everyone. Its 18 Certificate accurately reflects the violence or in the case of the scalping desecration of the dead that the film portrays. Like its plot it portrayal of violence is very pulpy. Anyone offended by Tarantino’s earlier films should stay well clear of this one too.
Overall I enjoyed Inglourious Basterds more than I expected to and would recommend it to anyone who likes Tarantino, pulp or well made trash. It isn’t for the easily offended.