Energetic, inventive, swaggering fun, Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is consummate Hollywood entertainment—rich in fantasy and blithely amoral.
It's also quintessential Tarantino—even more drenched in film references than gore, with a proudly misspelled title (lifted from Italian genre-meister Enzo Castellari's 1978 Dirty Dozen knockoff) to underscore the movie's cinematic hyperliteracy. Tepidly received in Cannes and thereafter tweaked, Inglourious Basterds may still be a tad long at two and a half hours and a little too pleased with itself, but it's tough to resist the enthusiastic performances and terrific dialogue—if you're not put off by the juvenile premise or cartoonish savagery.
Inglourious Basterds is something sui generis—a two-fisted Hollywood occupation romance, in which a Jewish special unit wreaks vengeance on the Nazis. It also has the best Western opener in decades: The first of five chapters nods to Sergio Leone with the title "Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France" and to the genre in general with a shot of a French farm family hanging their laundry as a Nazi convoy approaches in the distance like a Comanche band. Violence is not immediately forthcoming—Inglourious Basterds is as much talk-talk as bang-bang.
The first of a half-dozen one-on-one verbal jousts pits a taciturn salt-of-the-earth peasant against the loquacious Nazi colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), who, humorously officious, hypnotizes his prey with a twinkling eye, giant grin and steady stream of civilized chatter. Landa, the SS functionary assigned to rid France of Jews, is not only the movie's villain, but also its master of revels. Waltz's turn isn't the lone showy performance—Mike Myers has a ripe cameo as the British general who conceives the film's convoluted Operation Kino, and Diane Kruger is convincingly unconvincing as a German movie diva channeling Mata Hari.
Waltz's elegant and clever SS man is a European sissy whose "barbaric" antagonists are a squad of Jewish-American commandos led by wily hillbilly Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt). The Jews are out for blood, and Raine promises his eponymous Basterds that, under his leadership, they will terrorize the Germans with "Apache tactics."
Given its subject and director's track record, Inglourious Basterds has less mayhem than one might expect. Operating like a cross between the Dirty Dozen and a Nazi death squad, the Basterds take no prisoners—designated "survivors" are shipped back to Germany, swastikas carved in their foreheads to spook the brass. The rest are sent to Valhalla.
The heroine of, and most artificial construct in, Inglourious Basterds is Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), Jewish survivor of a Nazi massacre, hiding in plain sight as the proprietress of a Paris movie theater. Tarantino's characters live and die in (and sometimes at) the movies, and only there. Tarantino can't resist dispatching two characters in a John Woo-style slow-mo double shoot-out staged in a projection booth or taunting Hitler (Martin Wuttke) and Goebbels (Sylvester Groth, re-creating his role in Dani Levy's recently released My Führer) by forcing them to witness an allusion to their supposed favorite movie—Metropolis—in what could be their final moments on earth.
In a sense, Inglourious Basterds is a form of science fiction. Everything unfolds in and maps an alternate universe: The Movies. Even Shosanna's Parisian neighborhood has a marked resemblance to a Cannes back alley. Inflammable nitrate film is a secret weapon. Goebbels is an evil producer; the German war hero who pursues Shosanna has become a movie star. Set to David Bowie's Cat People title song, the scene in which Shosanna—who is, of course, also an actor—applies her war paint to become the glamorous "face of Jewish vengeance," is an interpolated music video. The spectacular climax has the newly dead address those about to die from the silver screen. Operation Kino not only depends on Shosanna's movie house and the German movie diva's complicity, but a heroic film critic (!), played by Michael Fassbender.