It’s no secret that Quentin Tarantino likes to riff on genre films. He filters them through his post-modern, ironic fanboy sensibility and churns out stylish, overlong and self-absorbed works that divide audiences and critics. That said, I like the guy’s work - even though I recognize everything that’s wrong with his movies.
So “Django Unchained,” a totally unhinged take on spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation flicks, is classic Tarantino. At 141 minutes it’s a good 15 minutes longer than it needs to be, features several scenes that are nothing more than space fillers (like a bit in which Klan types complain they can’t see through the poorly cut eyeholes of their hoods), and ends with a QT staple, the extended bloodbath. But given its length it runs along fairly smoothly, has fun performances from Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson and Christoph Waltz, features a slew of cool cameos (Bruce Dern! Tom Wopat! Walton Goggins from “Justified”!), and enough geeky references (like Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack to the Eastwood classic “Two Mules For Sister Sara”) to keep cult bloggers occupied for weeks. Is it a great work? No. But if you like this kind of stuff, it sure is fun.
The Django of the title is Jamie Foxx, a slave bought by bounty hunter Waltz so he can identify some bad guys Waltz is after. In exchange, the bounty hunter will give Django his freedom, and help him find his wife (Kerry Washington), who has been sold to a snarlingly vicious Mississippi plantation owner played with smoke coming out of his ears by Di Caprio.
Their quest takes them to a plantation run by ‘Big Daddy’ Bennet (Don Johnson, very funny) and run-ins with various nasty folk until they make it to the magnolia state, where DiCaprio enjoys ‘Mandingo fighting,’ pitting muscular slaves against each other in a brawl to the death. And popping up at the old manse is Samuel L. Jackson, playing an aging house slave as if he were the great-grandfather of Jules Winnfield, his character in “Pulp Fiction.”
Tarantino’s films are basically weird, comic-book like parodies of genres that the original filmmakers took deadly seriously. “Kill Bill” is the Marvel Comics version of a martial arts movie. “Inglourious Basterds” is basically an R-rated war movie channeled through a Captain America mentality (if Captain America were Jewish). So the character of Django is not only based on a 1966 spaghetti western of the same name (its star, Franco Nero, has a cameo in the film), but classic Fred Williamson blaxploitation oaters like “The Legend of Nigger Charley.”
There is no real depth to any of Tarantino’s films. And “Django Unchained,” which lacks the nihilistic cool that made the spaghetti western genre so hugely popular, isn’t as good as Tarantino classics “Pulp Fiction” and “Jackie Brown.” But so what? The film is a labor of love, from a former video store clerk who geeked out watching ‘B’ movies. Anyone who has ever sat in the dark and been transported by a film to another world can relate. Quentin Tarantino is just sharing his dream life with us. And that’s fine by me.