Slavery is no laughing matter – unless you place it in the capable hands of Quentin Tarantino, who uses the rousing “Django Unchained” to give flesh traders the same brutal, nonsensical business he gave the Nazis in his Oscar-winning “Inglourious Basterds.”
Slavery is no laughing matter – unless you place it in the capable hands of Quentin Tarantino, who uses the rousing “Django Unchained” to give flesh traders the same brutal, nonsensical business he gave the Nazis in his Oscar-winning “Inglourious Basterds.” It even features another jovial performance from Christoph Waltz as a relentless hunter of fugitives, only now he’s rounding up redneck outlaws instead of runaway Jews.
That makes him a good guy this time, I guess, although there are moments when his Dr. King Schultz is so ruthless it’s hard to tell. But compared to the white-trash scum he runs up against in his kill-for-cash trade, he’s practically a choirboy. He’s also a riot, delivering line after line of Tarantino’s biting, sarcastic dialogue with such precision he practically dares you not to laugh. Any resistance to such quickly dissipates the minute his German-born, ex-dentist rides up to a couple of overseers escorting a chain gang of slaves through the Tennessee woods. Sporting fancy duds and driving a wagon adorned with an enormous, spring-mounted tooth, it’s understandable why they refuse to take Schultz and his slightly accented “fancy talk” seriously. But you can bet they will once he spontaneously opens fire.
The scene is as bloody as it is funny, perfectly setting the tone for a series of wonderfully unpredictable events that will transpire over the next two-and-a-half hours. But first, the business at hand, freeing Jamie Foxx’s Django from his chains in order for the now ex-slave to assist Schultz in finding the notorious Brittle brothers, a trio of cruel overseers only Django can identify by sight. And considering they were the boys that whipped, burned and took him away from his slave wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), Django is only too happy to oblige. Thus, we have the start of what will become a beautiful friendship between the expatriate dentist and the freed slave. The world, and the movies, will never be the same.
What makes the unlikely pairing of Waltz and Foxx so appealing is the precision with which each plays off the other, creating an unconventional, mixed-race version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Their alter egos grow tight, and they don’t just stop with the Brittles. They make a highly profitable trade out of their version of “flesh-for-cash.” And with every lifeless body they load into their wagon, the tighter they become. The beauty of their mix of brutality and camaraderie is that it’s written with such style and substance by Tarantino, who between the bountiful mirth, slyly takes the dirty diaper that is slavery in America and rubs it in our face. I don’t know how he does it, but it’s an amazing feat the way he’s able to sicken you while also making you laugh. It’s very much the same technique he used in “Basterds,” and I hope he never stops.
That alone makes “Django Unchained” one of the year’s best films, but Tarantino goes even further by also making his movie a loving tribute to both spaghetti Westerns and Blaxploitation, two genres that utterly fascinated him as a youth. You feel that love, too, in every meticulously shot frame. And his terrific ensemble of actors respond accordingly. Of course, you expect that from the likes of Waltz and Foxx, as well as from Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson, who play our salt-and-pepper duo’s formidable counterparts in the film’s climactic showdown. But you don’t expect it from Don Johnson, who flat steals the movie as a lily white plantation owner whose bigotry is so profuse it’s – dare I say – funny. If I had a nickel for every time he drops the “N” word, I’d be a very rich man.
Such Tarantino favorites as Kurt Russell and Laura Cayouette also pop up in short, but memorable, roles. But it’s the battle of wits and firepower waged by Foxx, Waltz, DiCaprio and Jackson that form “Django’s” heart. And heart, despite the excessive cartoon violence, is what this movie is all about, as Django – like the German legend of Broomhilda – vows to fight to the death in his quest to be united with his long-lost love. He finds her, of course, living under the oppressive thumb of DiCaprio’s cleverly named Calvin Candie, owner of the lucrative Candyland Plantation. It is there where Waltz and Django plot their most daring ruse, a complex plot to trick Candie into letting them ride off with Broomhilda with no strings attached. Little do they know, they have an even tougher nut than Candie to crack, and that would be his senior house slave, Stephen, played by a bald, almost unrecognizable Jackson.
The cat-and-mouse machinations each of the four principals indulges in during a long, intense – and wordy – dinner party are as riveting as the accompanying dialogue. And the shocking place it leads to is sure to rival the blazing gun battle at the climax of “The Wild Bunch.” Yes, it’s bloody, but what sticks with you is the humor – and the pertinent lessons about the pervasiveness of racism that, sadly, still thrives in America. But most of all, it’s a beautiful tribute to the power of love in Django’s devotion to both his wife and his best pal, Schultz. Foxx makes every minute of it ring loud and true, and looks unbelievably cool doing it. He does for the South what John Wayne did for the West, and there’s nobody you’d rather ride off into the sunset with than this brave black man in a white hat.
DJANGO UNCHAINED (R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity.) Cast includes Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson and Don Johnson. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Grade A-