BBFC Classification: 18
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Walton Goggins, James Remar, Don Johnson, Franco Nero, Quentin Tarantino, Bruce Dern, Jonah Hill
Nothing gets movie fans so worked up as the arrival of a new Quentin Tarantino movie, and Django Unchained was no exception when it hit cinemas a couple of years back. 2009’s Inglourious Basterds arrived to universal praise from fans and critics alike and represented something of a creative high for the director as it is a film that pretty much defines everything that Quentin Tarantino is about – good qualities and bad – and after the relative disappointment of Death Proof in 2007 he needed to keep that level of consistency going.
But Quentin Tarantino is a man who will make whatever film he wants to make and, whatever you think of him, that is a quality that should be applauded. Inglourious Basterds proved that after the overly-talky Death Proof Tarantino could still do overindulgent but make it so engrossing that you barely noticed two-and-a-half hours had passed. Of course, the casting of Christoph Waltz as a German SS colonel was a masterstroke and it seemed that the director had found the perfect leading man to carry off his extreme and bizarre characterisations, and thankfully he brings Waltz back for Django Unchained, along with some other notable character actors, as he brings the All-American Western kicking and screaming back to mainstream consciousness.
The year is 1858 and in the Deep South a gang of African-American male slaves are being marched across country by the Speck Brothers, a pair of slave drivers. Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German dentist who has taken up bounty hunting, stops the Specks and tries to purchase a slave for himself. After an exchange between Schultz and the brothers that ends in Schultz coming off the victor, Schultz frees a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx – Any Given Sunday) as Django can identify the people that Schultz is hunting.
Discovering that Djangio is married and has been separated from his enslaved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington – Life is Hot in Cracktown), Schultz trains Django to be an effective assassin and together they travel across America to Candyland, a plantation owned by the ruthless Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio – The Departed), to rescue Broomhilda from her captivity. Cue lots of witty dialogue and extreme violence…
It sounds simple enough and when put up against Inglourious Basterds it probably is, which begs the question as to why a film with such a simple plot has to last 165 minutes. The obvious answer is that it is because Quentin Tarantino wrote it and the man isn’t known for his restraint when it comes to dialogue. The dialogue itself is very witty and delivered by some top-notch performances (mostly) and for the first 90 minutes the film dances along quite jauntily as Django and Schultz go about their business in a gleeful orgy of bargaining and deception, but there is a noticeable dip in pace and tone as the film goes into its final act. An overlong dinner scene leads into a spectacular shoot-out that has some of Tarantino’s most impressive on-screen violence ever, and in the hands of any other filmmaker that would be a nice full-stop on the whole story. But never one for convention, Tarantino keeps the story going for another half-an-hour or so and this is the films biggest flaw – after the tremendously-staged shoot-out there’s nowhere to go. It’s the film’s biggest set-piece and brings all the anger and violence that has been simmering through the dialogue for the duration of the film to a head, after which there is only a feeling of deflation. It’s a brave move but a completely unsatisfactory one.
The performances are naturally superb, with two very notable exceptions. Much has been made of Tarantino’s acting ability – or lack of it – and his desire to appear on-screen in his films, and his appearance here is one of truly head-shaking proportions; apparently he was playing an Australian but it could have been a multitude of nationalities from Russian to South African. Still, his excellent demise is all the more satisfying for it. The other notably under par performance is from Jamie Foxx, who totally underplays Django to the point that you hardly notice he’s there. It doesn’t help that most of his screen time is shared with Christoph Waltz, who has the lion’s share of the best lines and knows how to deliver them, but it’s almost like he gave up trying and just read his lines as they were written with no desire to emote. Credit must also go to Leonardo DiCaprio, who is nearly (but not quite) as charismatic and magnetic as Waltz, and Samuel L. Jackson as his senior house slave Stephen, whose wide-eyed stare and bordering-on-caricature performance (in a good way) is a fun companion to DiCaprio’s understated menace.
Production-wise Django Unchained is certainly one of Tarantino’s strongest. The visuals are excellent and you totally believe that you are back in the 19th century, and of course the soundtrack is so perfect it’s like it was already there and Tarantino built the film around it. So just how does Django Unchained sit amongst Tarantino’s works? Well, it isn’t as close-to-perfect as Inglourious Basterds or Reservoir Dogs but it is leagues better than Death Proof and just as entertaining – possibly more so – as Kill Bill Vol. 1. Of course, it’s all subjective and Tarantino’s films will continue to be dissected and analysed for years to come but whilst Django Unchained certainly isn’t his best overall film, when it’s good it’s brilliant and if you’ve got any love for the man at all then you’ll enjoy it… for the first two hours, anyway.
Special Features: Reimagining the Spaghetti Western: The Horses & Stunts of Django Unchained, The Costume Designs of Sharen Davis, Remembering J. Michael Riva: The Production Design of Django Unchained, 20 Years in the Making: The Tarantino XX Blu-ray Collection, soundtrack spot.
UK Release Date: 20th May 2013