Quentin Tarantino is so talented that we expect the world from him, so even a second tier entry by him feels a little like a letdown. Django Unchained has a powerful and promising first act but by the last third it descends into over-the-top self indulgences. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Tarantino’s slaves in the Old West don’t deserve their share of bloody amusement. But the main attraction of Tarantino movies are the verbal showdowns and churning orations, which are good but not up to “Pulp” or “Basterds” par. This is the first time, according to me, that his characters sometimes go on too long of a rant. The movie, inconsistent, nevertheless has its intrigue.
Jamie Foxx is stoic but not necessarily wowing as the eponymous Django, a freed slave. Christoph Waltz is masterfully swirly-talking again, this time a good guy dentist and bounty hunter. Leonardo DiCaprio is wicked as the slave-owning and abusive Calvin Candie. Samuel L. Jackson very brilliant as the ultimate Uncle Tom, a character so audaciously duplicitous and power-crazed that it’s this character that I think will be most remembered years down the line.
The onset of the movie is to me quite ingenious. There never was a freed slave during the pre-Civil War that was in any way empowered. Given the title of bounty hunter. Given a horse to ride atop to ride across slave territories. Dr. King Schultz (Waltz, superb if doing safe reprises from his earlier Tarantino film) is a bounty hunter and abolitionist who gives Django this empowerment, setting the plot conveniently but quickly into motion.
Cruelty happens in “Django” in lots of sadistic, creative ways. This is where Tarantino stirs controversy, yet to me, it’s brilliant. It paves way to understanding that slaves were treated a lot worse than even depicted here. Django isn’t just a savior protagonist, he is an idealized myth that never could have happened. The mission catalyst is for him to rescue “comfort slave” Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the throes of Candie’s plantation because she was his wife before enslavement separated them.
Extreme violence includes Mandingo fighting to the death between Hercules-brawny slaves, as well as a scene of an insolent slave ripped apart by dogs. Many blacks are relegated to one-note personalities, but alas, so were actual black people of the time. This is all rather “thinking” material, for it demonstrates the whole sadistic ownership and slave helplessness cycle of the times.
All very good stuff, but Tarantino doesn’t know when to quit this time. It’s also a rare occasion when long episodic portions doesn’t fully gel with the material. This makes “Django” second-tier Tarantino. Another fault: Foxx comes off as a rookie matinee idol while he’s upstaged by his peers. Then again, when Jackson is on-screen nobody is able to nor should they upstage him.
With James Remar, Dennis Christopher, Franco Nero, Jonah Hill, Nichole Galicia as a glamour slave, and Don Johnson as Big Daddy.
165 Minutes. Rated R.
VIOLENT THRILLERS / THINKING MAN’S ACTION MOVIE / WEEKEND VIEWING DEBAUCHERY
Film Cousins: “Birth of a Nation” (1915); “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976); “Rolling Thunder” (1977); “Jackie Brown” (1997).