Starring Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Laurent. Directed by Quentin Tarantino. Rated R for strong graphic violence, language and brief sexuality. 153 minutes.
To begin with, at no time in Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS does he explain the title, the odd spelling, or what it has to do with a 1978 Italian film that used the same name properly spelled. Instead, he has simply appropriated it for another of his stories of righteous vengeance, with plenty of blood and violence.
The setting is occupied France during World War II. In the prologue we meet Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), whose nickname is “the Jew Hunter.” The sequence ends in the mass murder of a family in hiding where one, Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent), manages to escape. The tension plays out to excruciating lengths, but in a Tarantino film we have to see the evil to justify the action that follows.
The film involves two separate plots. In one, Shoshanna, under an assumed identity, is running a Paris movie theater where the German high command will be convening for the premiere of a film glorifying the Reich. In the other, a group of Jewish American soldiers led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is put behind enemy lines for the purpose of terrorizing the enemy. Both stories converge when Raine becomes part of a plot to blow up the theater which Shoshanna is already planning on doing to exact revenge against Landa.
For those who haven’t seen “Pulp Fiction” or “Kill Bill” and don’t know what to expect from a Tarantino film, it’s important to note two things. First, it is very violent. The “Basterds” not only kill German soldiers, they scalp them. Local horror director Eli Roth plays one of the “Basterds,” nicknamed the “Jewish Bear,” whose specialty is clubbing Nazis to death with a baseball bat while invoking the spirit of Ted Williams. The second thing is that it is long and talky, yet it is never dull. For those who enjoy Tarantino’s films, this is an improvement over his “Death Proof,” his failed half of the flop “double feature” that was “Grindhouse.”
Tarantino is not offering a history lesson, but a movie lesson. This is a revenge fantasy where the non-Jewish Tarantino wants us to cheer on the violent Jews because – as we see – their victims more than deserve their fates. This is not “Defiance.” Forty years ago Mel Brooks used ridicule as his weapon of choice against Hitler in his classic comedy “The Producers.” Tarantino seems to believe that arch and amusing dialogue is fine, but the best way to deal with Nazi thugs is to kill as many of them as possible.
As usual he has some bravura moments. A scene in a rathskeller works on so many levels as to be breathtaking. There are some great performances, particularly Waltz as the smooth and manipulative villain. There’s also an amusing cameo by Mike Myers as a British officer and, under a lot of make up, 79-year-old Rod Taylor as Winston Churchill. “Inglourious Basterds” shows Tarantino back in control and, like Brad Pitt’s character, taking no prisoners.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.