RATING |

Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds begins with an explosion of music and then the subtitle "Once upon a time in . . . Nazi-occupied France." And, indeed, Tarantino's misspelled World War II mash-up is very much a fairy tale, a fantasy.

But the "once upon a time" exists exclusively in one particular movie junkie's head, where the combat exploits of the Dirty Dozen combine with the madcap slapstick of Duck Soup, where the hardboiled swagger of Sam Fuller meets the grisly gore of Eli Roth (the Hostel director stars as one of the Basterds), where comic shtick and over-writ jive reach a tsunami of camp excess.

And then there's history, which Tarantino raspberries with lunatic abandon. Suffice it to say that Adolf Hitler does not die in a bunker in April 1945. Tarantino has other plans for the führer.

Like Kill Bill before it, the writer/director's Inglourious Basterds is divided into chapters. The first, set in Gallic cow country, introduces Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), an SS officer with the sobriquet "Jew Hunter." He arrives at a farmhouse to root out a family of Jews he believes to be hiding there. There is plenty of patter between Landa and the farmer LaPadite (Denis Menochet), a considerable amount of it in French, before the duo switch to English - for the edification of the audience, yes, but also to facilitate the discovery of the Jews (they're within earshot but don't understand English).

Eventually, after pipe smoking and winking badinage, a grim massacre ensues. But one of the daughters - the beautiful Shoshana (Mélanie Laurent) - escapes. She will be heard from again.

Cut to Chapter 2, and the introduction of the Basterds - a team of Army recruits under the command of Lt. Aldo Raine (sounds like Aldo Ray, the actor who excelled in macho military roles). Brad Pitt plays the lieutenant with a jaunty mustache and a Tennessee twang. He cuts a formidable figure, and he wants the eight soldiers, six of them Jewish Americans, to join him in cutting Nazis, too. He's being literal: slicing the tops off the heads of the enemy, "Apache-style" - 100 scalps per man.

In this "bushwhackin' guerrilla army" are Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Roth), who beats Nazis with a baseball bat, and five other Hebrew schoolkids-turned-avengers (Omar Doom, Michael Bacall, B.J. Novak, Paul Rust, and Samm Levine). The Basterds also include a renegade Nazi and an Austrian expat.

If Edward Zwick's Defiance offered a Jewish revenge story based on historical fact, Tarantino's Basterds delivers its brand of Semitic payback based on spaghetti western caricature (with vintage Ennio Morricone music), over-the-top grindhouse violence, and old copies of Sgt. Fury and Sgt. Rock comic books.

There's an interview with Tarantino in the September Atlantic in which the loquacious auteur gripes that Holocaust movies "always have Jews as victims." He goes on: "I want to see something different. Let's see Germans that are scared of the Jews. Let's not have everything build up to a big misery, let's actually take the fun of action-movie cinema and apply it to this situation."

A fine plan, if Tarantino had made a coherent action movie. But apart from a few flashback scenes of bloody retribution in the woods, most of Inglourious Basterds takes place around tables in bars and boîtes. There are parlor games, endless arch dialogue, each chapter building to a firefight (or some other sort of fire). Along the way, Tarantino introduces a British officer (Michael Fassbender) schooled in German cinema, a German film actress (Diane Kruger) working undercover for the Resistance, a German film actor (Daniel Brühl), and a pile of 350 highly flammable nitrate prints. Leni Riefenstahl and David O. Selznick pop up in conversation, and pretty much the whole finale (Chapter 5: "Revenge of the Giant Face") takes place in a Paris movie theater.

In other words, Inglourious Basterds - very loosely based on Enzo Castellari's 1978 war pic of the same (but correctly spelled) name - is less a Holocaust retribution fantasy than a messy homage to war movies, and to movies, period. Tonally schizoid and rife with anachronisms (a David Bowie song on the sound track, out-of-era vernacular), Tarantino's Third Reich folly is utterly exasperating.

Sure, Pitt's cartoony performance is amusing, and Austrian actor Waltz brings a strutting pomposity to his role that's not without its malevolent charm. But Tarantino is like a kid playing soldiers - he can't stop himself, and he tumbles into long scenarios at odds with the basic tenets of film narrative. He even resorts to labeling his characters with word-balloon-like scrawls, just in case we're having trouble keeping track of who's who in the chaos.

And what did Tarantino have in mind with the film's final exchange? It's between Pitt's Lt. Aldo and Novak's Pvt. Utivich, the two men sitting there as Aldo carves a swastika into a certain Nazi's forehead.

"You know somethin', Utivich?" says an appraising Pitt. "I think this might just be my masterpiece."

If that's Tarantino talking, he's delusional.EndText

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/.