Quentin Tarantino’s Achilles heel is his immaturity and obsession with genre. Be it Japanese ninja films or 70s drive-in schlock, his bad pictures (and the Kill Bills and his contribution to Grindhouse are bad pictures, “fear of not being hip” critical acclaim notwithstanding) are foreordained by his choice of an homage to shit, which merely produces higher caliber shit.
Hence, my trepidation walking into Django Unchained. Fortunately, spaghetti westerns are stronger source material than Japanese ninja crap and American drive-in crap, and Tarantino doesn’t become engulfed by this particular genre. Sergio Leone is ever present, but the picture does not attempt to ape or glorify his work. Tarantino also adds humor with a very modern sensibility. Finally, Christoph Waltz, who electrified Inglorious Basterds and collected a well-earned supporting actor Oscar for his work, and Leonardo DiCaprio, who embodies oily, smooth charm and venom, elevate the material, so much so that when they are absent from the film, you can hear it leaking air.
Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave freed by a bounty hunter (Waltz) who needs Django to identify some targets. A partnership develops and soon, the duo endeavor to retrieve Django’s wife (Kerry Washington) from Mississippi slavemaster DiCaprio and his conniving house master (Samuel L. Jackson). Cartoonish, bloody, often wildly funny, and fast-paced, Django would have scored higher save for a tacked-on ending that adds a wholly unnecessary 25 minutes to a film that was satisfyingly concluded. Worse, it is in these 25 minutes that Tarantino the actor appears, with a befuddling Aussie accent, to jerk the picture to a standstill. From there, surreal becomes outrageous and outrageous becomes boring.
Still, what precedes the unsatisfying ending is a blast, part blaxploitation revenge fantasy, part loving tribute to Italian westerns, and part sly, broad comedy (the scene where a posse of pre-Klan night riders argue over the utility of their white sheet hoods is more Blazing Saddles than Once Upon a Time in the West). Best, professional scold and Knicks fan Spike Lee, who I understand used to have something to do with filmmaking, is not amused by the melding of a slave story and a western When Lee is up in arms, it is a strong endorsement indeed. Lee’s criticism is almost as stupid as the Village Voice‘s defense of Tarantino’s use of the word “nigger” (over 100 times) on the grounds of historical accuracy. Even if that word hadn’t been used in the Mississippi of 1858, Tarantino would have used it nonetheless, for two reasons. First, he loves that word, and he loves it most when uttered by Samuel L. Jackson. Second, just to spite Spike.