Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is preposterous, frequently cartoonish and too long — but it’s still lots of fun.
It’s been the same with every new Tarantino movie since Pulp Fiction: I really, really want to like it. Mostly, I’ve been a little disappointed.
Tarantino didn’t so much hit the big time in the Nineties as career through it in a juggernaut. Not only were his Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) the coolest movies for years, but Tarantino also provided scripts for True Romance (1993), Natural Born Killers (1994) and From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) (even if Oliver Stone’s hamfisted reworking of Natural Born Killers did lead Tarantino more or less to disown it). Jackie Brown (1997), in which Tarantino relocated Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch to Los Angeles, is a pretty good movie with some great performances, some genuinely nervous moments and, most importantly for any Tarantino movie, memorable dialogue. Accept no substitute.
And then: nothing. We had to wait until 2003 for Kill Bill: Volume 1, Tarantino’s much-anticipated martial arts revenge movie starring Uma Thurman. But while it was fun in parts, it was also bloated and self-indulgent. Tarantino seemed to have forgotten that what made his mining of naff movie genres so good before was that he gave them the thing they lacked: a good script. That said, watch Kill Bill: Volume 1 back-to-back with Kill Bill: Volume 2 and you’ll get a sense of how good it could have been if only someone had had the clout to tell Golden Boy to get a grip and tighten it up.
Like a lot of fairweather Tarantino fans, I didn’t even bother checking out Grindhouse, his 2007 two-films-in-one collaboration with his amigo Robert Rodriguez. Nor did I bother with the separated version of it, Death Proof. Really, I thought, this constant referencing of cinema’s past is getting so old.
So, while I really wanted to enjoy his latest effort, Inglourious Basterds, I decided not to get my hopes up.
The omens were not good. I’d seen the trailer: A small group of Jewish-American soldiers is parachuted in behind enemy lines to ‘kill Nazis’. No prisoners, no rules-of-war, just straightforward death squad stuff designed to scare the hell out of the German army. The twist is that the group’s leader, Aldo ‘The Apache’ Raine (Brad Pitt), wants proof of their kills. And he wants it the good ol’ way: scalps. One of these hard-boiled killing machines is the guy who plays Ryan the Temp in the US version of The Office. Mad premise, weird casting: it didn’t look good.
But to my surprise, I actually enjoyed Inglourious Basterds. If you fret about historical accuracy (or correct spelling) in movies, don’t go anywhere near this film. The plot is self-consciously preposterous. It centres on an attempt to assassinate the entire Nazi high command at the premiere of a propaganda movie in Paris. Along the way there are some moderately gruesome scenes of violence, a tale of unrequited love and plenty of dark comedy.
Most of all, it’s fun, just like the Second World War movies of old - films like Where Eagles Dare or The Dirty Dozen (to which Inglourious Basterds clearly owes a few debts). Here, too, the world is divided into good guys (never mind that some of them are borderline psychopaths) and bad guys. Give or take a few plot twists along the way, the good guys get to kill the bad guys, there’s a decent amount of action and we all get a sense of justice being done. Inglourious Basterds may be frequently cartoonish, but what else do you expect from a comic book nerd like Tarantino?
In recent years, films emphasising the victims of war (like Schindler’s List) or attempting to reveal the horror of war (like Saving Private Ryan) have been preferred to the old style kill-the-bad-guys stuff. Meanwhile, the template of those older movies seems to have been imposed on real life, if Western actions in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan (and the Hollywood-led demands for intervention in Darfur) are anything to go by. With Inglourious Basterds, it’s a relief to see that black-and-white worldview back where it belongs: on the big screen.
Brad Pitt may not be an actor with a huge dramatic range, but he plays the lightly comic, charming rogue very well and he is perfect as Aldo Raine (even if his technique does seem to involve looking constipated a lot). There’s plenty of very able support, too, especially from Christoph Waltz in the role of the ‘Jew Hunter’, Colonel Hans Landa, whose intelligence and good-natured banter cover a mind of pure evil.
Inglourious Basterds is still bloated, though. There’s really no need for such a slight story to take 153 minutes to tell. Some of the set pieces, like a long scene in a basement bar, drift when they should be cranking up claustrophobic tension. But it’s still worth the ticket price - just so long as you can suspend your sense of disbelief for two-and-a-half hours.