After two months of puerile hooey, the summer movie season has finally hit its stride. Coming in on the heels of the outstanding District 9, Quentin Tarantino's long-awaited World War II revenge epic is yet another reminder of just how much fun going to the movies can be.
Inglourious Basterds follows Tarantino's now familiar structure: a story divided into a collection of episodic sequences ("chapters"), each of which finds inspiration in a different combination of classic film genres and feels like a self-contained short film. It's talky, gory, and fiercely entertaining. Even at 153 minutes, this is distilled Tarantino: all the good stuff, with fewer of the indulgences that weigh down some of his other films. When Brad Pitt grins and declares, "This might just be my masterpiece," we get the feeling he's talking about more than the swastika he's just carved into a Nazi officer's forehead.
Basterds is a cinematic rarity: a World War II movie without a single scene set on the front lines. Its characters are waging a very different kind of war, one of espionage, intrigue, and brutal psychological guerilla warfare. The "Basterds" are a group of American- and German-born Jewish soldiers, led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Pitt) of Maynardville, Tenn., who have been deposited behind enemy lines with the express purpose of terrorizing Nazi soldiers. It takes a certain kind of person to scare Nazis, and these guys fit the bill. Raine, proud of his Apache heritage, is assembling the world's largest collection of Nazi scalps, while the team's star player (Hostel director Eli Roth, in a surprisingly strong turn as Sgt. Donny Donowitz, aka "the Bear Jew") delights in smashing skulls to bits with his blood-stained baseball bat.
With good guys like these, the heavies need to take nastiness to a new level. Thanks to a certifiably brilliant performance by Austrian actor Christoph Waltz as SS Col. Hans Landa ("The Jew Hunter"), that's not a problem. Waltz is utterly captivating and thoroughly terrifying; in fact, he's arguably the star of the movie. His terrible actions in the film's opening sequence—a brilliant, almost unbearably tense homage to Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns—provide the dramatic through line that drives the plot forward and unites Basterds' five chapters. If there's any justice, this year's Oscar race ended the moment Waltz first slithered onscreen.
Waltz might steal the show, but the film's performances are uniformly excellent. Pitt turns Aldo Raine into the role of his career, and French actress/director Melanie Laurent is memorable as Shosanna Dreyfus, a young Jewish woman determined to avenge the slaughter of her family at the hands of Landa's troops. These performances, along with Tarantino's top-notch, nuanced script, are the key to the film's success. Most of the action plays out in words and body language rather than machine guns and fisticuffs. The action is brutal, but many of the verbal exchanges are just as harrowing.
There are so many wonderful touches that you almost need to see Basterds twice in order to really see it at all. To the delight of any film buff in the audience, the movie is as much about cinema as war or revenge. The violent climax takes place in a movie theater and centers around the star-studded premiere of a Nazi propaganda picture, and lengthy scenes throughout the film are devoted to discussions of classic film, particularly of the German sort. Movies are even used as weapons; every film student who felt their inner screenwriter stir when a film history prof lectured about the highly flammable properties of early silver nitrate film will be satisfied that someone finally found something dramatic to do with it. It's not surprising that someone is Quentin Tarantino.
Inglourious Basterds isn't a perfect movie; many viewers will wish it had more of some things and less of others. It would have been nice to learn more about the characters, particularly members of Raine's team who have little to do besides shoot a Nazi now and then. Only one Basterd is given a back story, and it's good enough to make us want more. And since we don't get much of a feel for them as people, their deaths are unaffecting. It also wouldn't hurt Tarantino to pick up a red pen every now and then. He's incredibly good at dialogue, but there are times when enough is enough.
Glorious as it is, Basterds isn't for everyone. While very little screen time is devoted to violence, it's bloody when it comes. The scalpings that were all but promised in the movie's trailer are graphic and grisly, and there's an assortment of onscreen stabbings, throat slashings, beatings and shootings. Liberal doses of humor take the edge off, though, so it's never particularly disturbing.
Even with its flaws, Inglourious Basterds is one of the most exhilarating and brazenly entertaining movies of the year.