It’s been just over 20 years now since Quentin Tarantino first made a name for himself in the world of cinema with ‘Reservoir Dogs’. In the time since he hasn’t been particularly prolific but has managed to maintain an unusually high level of fame for a director, and a great deal has been written about his body of work. From the looks of things though, Tarantino hasn’t been reading any of it, and hasn’t really changed that much at all.
All of the criticisms regularly targeted at him apply just as much to ‘Django Unchained’ as any of his other films. Namely, ‘borrowing’ from more obscure films, self-indulgence, overuse of racial epithets, his films being overly talky, violent and lengthy, and, to a lesser extent, a lack of concern for historical accuracy.
He is at least being perfectly honest about which films he is choosing to ‘homage’ nowadays, this time taking the title from classic 1966 Spaghetti Western ‘Django’, (whose star, Franco Nero makes a brief cameo here).
‘Django’ (Jamie Foxx) is a former slave who is rescued by a German dentist turned bounty hunter called Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), needing his assistance locating some targets carrying large rewards. The friendship that forms between the two ultimately leads to them teaming up to try and rescue Django’s wife from the plantation she works at, owned by the hideous Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
It’s a good story for a western, but it’s not complicated and really, is it one that requires a near-three hour running time to tell? While there is little question that ‘Django Unchained’ is too long, it never feels boring. Ironically, the sections concerning Schultz and Django going off bounty hunting are great fun but over rather quickly, I could have happily watched a whole film of just that.
So while Tarantino’s weaknesses are present, his strengths are all there as well. ‘Django’, like ‘Inglorious Basterds’ before it, boasts many memorable characters, some excellent dialogue (even if certain speeches could be cut a little shorter), and some moments of incredible tension. It also shows off his more unsung talent for action, with a gloriously excessive climactic shoot-out. He has always had a way with actors, and this is no exception. Christoph Waltz excels in a role that was clearly written specifically for him, while an almost cartoonishly racist DiCaprio appears to be having a blast playing an all-out villain for a change. Jamie Foxx underplays it as the title character, and while he doesn’t have as many stand-out moments as the other characters, he emerges as one of Tarantino’s most sympathetic protagonists, a quality added to by the fact that he is, for once, not motivated by revenge, but the desire to rescue his wife. It’s Tarantino regular Samuel L. Jackson who really shines here though, playing totally against type as a despicable elderly head slave.
In places, ‘Django Unchained’ walks a bit of a tonal tightrope. It wants to make an important commentary on America’s shameful past while simultaneously being a big, fun exploitation film throwback. No one’s ever going to mistake it for a history lesson, but it does mostly manage to not feel disjointed, containing a few scenes of harsh, disturbing brutality, yet also the funniest scene Tarantino’s written yet (proto-Klan).
So Tarantino’s sticking to his guns, and uncompromisingly making the films he wants to make, and considering that in recent years that’s meant artfully-shot, talky, big-budget modern exploitation films, it’s to be admired. There isn’t really anyone else out there like him. The only thing he really needs to do though, is stop casting himself, appearing here in a pretty cringe worthy cameo as an Australian slaver, terrible accent and all.