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Inglourious Basterds: A Film Review

Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 07:20 PM EDT

The title refers to a Jewish-American military unit who are parachuted into Occupied France prior to D-Day to kill Nazis brutally and without mercy. To put that another way, two words which do not feature in the script are “Geneva Convention”. However, whilst the film draws on the likes of Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West for inspiration, with Quentin Tarantino at the helm, this was never going to be a conventionally gritty wartime revenge flick either. Consequently, audiences can expect some trademark scenes from the cult director, enough post-modern references to cinema to sink the D-Day armada, and an audacious attempt at what could cheekily be referred to as the sangréal of vengeance trips as far as exploitation films go.

At the same time, as far as Tarantino movies go, this one ends up being a disappointment. Yes, there are the usual dialogue-driven scenes that inevitably precede some act of extreme violence, not to mention the familiar sense of black humour and the old reliable of a Mexican stand-off. However, the writing, whilst remaining as idiosyncratic as always, possesses neither the snappiness nor the memorable exchanges that have been the hallmarks of Tarantino’s best films to date. Given that the script for Reservoir Dogs was written in a handful of weeks, whilst Inglourious Basterds has seemingly been sloshing around for years upon years, one begins to suspect why this may be the case.

In deference to it being a European film, Tarantino does make great use of different languages and accents. The latter includes the pompous King’s English of Michael Fassbender, as a movie-critic-turned-soldier (sic!), and the thick backwoods drawl of Brad Pitt, in as frozen a performance as he has ever given. However, it is the use of multilingual European actors that gives this film its distinctive tone, with the dialogue flowing easily from French into English and on into German and even Italian. Austrian actor Christoph Waltz is particularly impressive here, switching between all four with great aplomb.

In fact, Waltz steals every scene that he is in with his portrayal of the notorious Colonel Hans Landa, or the “Jew Hunter”, as he has become known. Urbane, jovial, and mildly effeminate, Landa does not come across as your typical arch-villain. In fact, he is more like an unconventionally dapper Colombo. Instead, Landa’s malignancy is conveyed by how other characters react in his presence. In this sense, they are like rodents transfixed by the hypnotic dance of a cobra. It is only a question of when he chooses to pounce.

Obviously being a film where Jews slaughter Nazis and where senior members of the Third Reich are portrayed as hapless buffoons, Inglourious Basterds contains about as much historical accuracy as a far-right meeting discussing the Holocaust. In this respect, it can be dismissed as merely being exploitative fluff or thrashed, instead, for making light of the heinous crimes committed by the Nazi regime.

Alternatively, you can hold your nose and make a case for how it is a daring representation of the ugliness and barbarity of unencumbered racial hatred, the strength and ferocity of those who refuse to be cowed, and an unvarnished portrayal of how an eye for an eye makes monsters of us all. In truth, though, it is just not worth getting that excited about it.

The overall impression is one that Tarantino just wanted to make the film in order to get it out of his system. His heart never truly feels in it and his centrepiece scene, in particular, feels limp and uninspired as a result. On the whole, Inglourious Basterds is modest entertainment that is pockmarked, in equal measure, by some surreally funny moments and others that are frankly abysmal to have to sit through. Having seen it once, I doubt that I would ever want to watch it again. Make of that what you will!