Neck-deep into Quentin Tarantino's antebellum western Django Unchained, I had this mental image of the über-geek genre filmmaker tapping furiously on his laptop, beaming at the brilliance of every new piece of dialogue he's writ.
For all I know, Tarantino works on a typewriter, or longhand on a legal pad (or dictates his copy to a Gal Friday in spike heels), but in any event, as the banter ping-ponged across the dining table in the plantation mansion of slave-master Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, twirling his mustache), with Jamie Foxx (in the title role), Christoph Waltz (as a winking bounty hunter), Kerry Washington (the slave girl Django has come to rescue), and Samuel L. Jackson (Candie's slave majordomo) all taking their turns, the endless, over-the-top badinage really started to bug me.
Tarantino has done this before (Sydney Tamiia Poitier and her gal pals gabbing away in Death Proof, the lengthy bar scene in Inglourious Basterds), and it really doesn't make for great cinema, despite what Tarantino may think. Less is more, dude.
But then again, if you're going to pay homage to Mandingo and pre-Eastwood spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation pics and Sam Peckinpah, and maybe a little John Ford, too, economy is not going to be the driving concern.
Django Unchained tells the tale of a stoic slave, his back crosshatched with whip scars, who is offered his freedom if he helps a German-born bounty hunter track down an infamous band of brothers with whom Django has had firsthand experience.
"I kill white people and get paid for it?" Django says, listening to this proposition. "What's not to like?"
Foxx is the straight man in all this, bringing dignity and dash to the proceedings, while Waltz, who nabbed a supporting-actor Oscar for his portrayal of a zealous SS officer in Inglourious Basterds, gets to steal another show with his gentlemanly elocution and dangerous panache. Like Inglourious Basterds, too, Django Unchained is big on the N-word. Not Nazi, but the other one, which, befitting a narrative set in the pre-Civil War South, is uttered often, with contempt.
Tonally, like Inglourious Basterds again, Django Unchained is all over the place. It's a fight to convey genuine emotion, or genuine anything, when every scene smacks of archness, tipping its Stetson to other movies, other eras. Tarantino lines up a parade of his B-movie icons to show their faces: Don Johnson, Bruce Dern, Michael Parks, Franco Nero, Russ Tamblyn, Lee Horsley, Robert Carradine, and it's impossible not to get into some of the cameos, some of the stunts.
And when Foxx's Django shows up dressed like Gainsborough's Blue Boy, in the guise of a "black slaver" advising Waltz's Dr. Schultz on his purchases, it's fine and dandy stuff. Ditto some of the jokes (DiCaprio's Candie is an avowed Francophile, but he doesn't speak French; Waltz's bounty hunter is also a dentist, and his wagon is topped with a giant molar).
Is Django Unchained about race and power and the ugly side of history? Only as much as Inglourious Basterds was about race and power and the ugly side of history. It's a live-action, heads-exploding, shoot-'em-up cartoon. Sometimes it crackles, and sometimes it merely cracks.
Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.