After a movie summer that doesn’t so much stick in the memory as congeal, what chance we have left of some memorable dialogue is all on the QT. Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds arrives after a long gestation with some rave notices on the posters. After the rum Death Proof, is the cult director back to his Pulp Fiction pomp?
The answer is yes and no despite his insistence that critics are now either for or against him.
His men-on-a-mission movie charts two parallel stories in occupied France. A local farm is invaded by Nazi troops and the credentials of self-styled ‘Jew Hunter’ Colonel Landa (Waltz) are proven when Shosanna Dreyfus (Laurent) narrowly escapes with her life after the brutal slaying of her family.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Pitt) issues a clarion call to his team of self-styled Basterds—a collection of Jewish American soldiers who will stalk behind enemy lines in Europe. Inspired by stories of Apache resistance, their favoured methods involve scalping captured soldiers and always leaving one alive with a swastika carved into his forehead to warn the others.
Into these bloody waters a plot emerges which pivots around a film screening at a French art house cinema; which offers its new manager, Shosanna an opportunity for revenge and the Basterds a chance to wipe out significant Nazis. Also involved in the caper is a Mata Hari type, the beautiful actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Kruger) and in a movie geek touch: Michael Fassbinder’s David Niven-esque British agent, whose life as a former film critic is essential for his cover.
Inspired superficially by the 1978 war exploitationers with the (correctly spelled) same title, this movie could only be made by Tarantino. Only he would combine 1970’s revenge licks with the Jewish WWII experience, then lace proceedings with British spy shenanigans, before weaving in a strand on 1930s German propaganda cinema. You can admire the brass balls and the originality, even if it is not close to being the masterpiece some are claiming.
The most compelling character on view is Colonel Lander, played deliciously by Austrian actor Christopher Waltz. Delivering his performance is English (mainly), German and French this actor relishes playing the only character that really gets to take a stroll in the screenplay. Lander also has the lion’s share of the QT monologues: when taking time out to discuss cream cakes and the importance of a man’s title with wicked charm and devilish timing.
The trouble is, most of other cast struggle with cartoon characters. Brad Pitt’s southern drawl and mannerisms remind you of his lighter work clowning around in Burn after Reading; it doesn’t amount to much and he might well look at what Tarantino has written for the likes of Michael Madsen and Harvey Keitel and feel short-changed. Eli Roth is not an actor. However the Oreo gets well and truly taken in the scene when Mike Myers shows up in heavy prosthetics as a 1930s version of Basil Exposition. Let’s just say the movie is silly fun, though it veers dangerously close to ‘Allo Allo at times. The leading females have plenty of action and reaction, if not the dialogue; Diane Kruger is gutsy and makes the most of this role in her native Germany.
Whilst a couple of scenes are great fun, particularly an opening set piece replete with tension, humour and intelligent writing, the overall effect is throwaway. The fairytale element, Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France etc, works to an extent but you are left feeling you don’t really care about the heroes even if you generically want the Nazis to get it. Basterds also suffers because, clever though QT is, he’s still made too much of a movie-movie, straying too far away from realism and not incisive enough to be anything else. It is a shame because for a man of his talent, this one is pretty dispensable.
*** THREE STARS