Django Unchained

<em>Django Unchained</em>

The time: two years before the Civil War. The place: the deep south. The person: Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave being slow-walked across to auction in Texas. Or at least, he was, until his band is stopped by dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who needs a man who has seen the vile Brittle Brothers in person and can point them out and help take them down. A man like Django.

It can be argued that Quentin Tarantino has already taken on the Spaghetti Western (by his own admission, his favorite genre) in Inglourious Basterds, albeit by a circuitous route as just one part of his strange concoction of war film and revenge. In Django Unchained, he approaches the Spaghetti Western in a more head-on manner, and a Quentin Tarantino Spaghetti Western is about exactly what you’d expect one to be. As with most of his films since Kill Bill, revenge is on the menu, and it’s served up in a high-pressure spray of blood and laughter.

Yes, laughter, as Tarantino willfully, gleefully casts off the remorse and ponderous gravity of his heavier meditations on revenge and what it does to the soul in favor of unrivaled entertainment. Entertainment fueled by violence — just the way we like it.

Kill Bill is actually the best comparison to make here to any of Tarantino’s previous films, from Robert Richardson‘s gorgeous cinematography to the high-flying, quick-moving violence, albeit with gun fu replacing kung fu. The action (far more sparse than you might think) is aided not just by the typically well-defined Tarantino characterization but also by a rich sense of humor, which he has not always displayed. One particularly well-drawn beat of a posse of lynchers complaining about not being able to see through the eye holes in their Ku Klux Klan-like hoods almost verges on Blazing Saddles territory, and yet does not feel at all out of place.

Django, it turns out, is a natural at the bounty hunter game, sharp with the eye and quick with the lead and able to subsume himself into a role as needed to sidle up to his prey, be it a ridiculously-dressed valet or a cold-hearted black slaver. He and Schultz quickly take to each other as Schultz teaches him the ropes, so much so that when Django tells him the story of his long-lost wife, the beautiful Broomhilda Von Shaft (it makes sense in context), Schultz feels honor-bound to help him rescue her.

Unfortunately, rescuing her means traveling into the belly of Candyland, the Mississippi plantation of one Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the king of the mandingo fight ring, where slaves are bought to fight one another to the death with their bare hands.

Much has been made of DiCaprio’s performance in the film, and he does not disappoint, flying between suave and crazed with equal vigor. The performances across the board are high, with Foxx and Waltz enjoying great on-screen chemistry. One of the few downsides is Schultz’s built-in showmanship often pushing Django to the sidelines, leaving him to shine only when he has the screen to himself.

That said, in a nearly three-hour film, there’s plenty of opportunity for him to get time to himself, particularly in the last act, as he faces off against Candie’s various henchmen, from gunman Billy Crash (Walton Goggins) to head house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), who truly epitomizes the film and era’s villainy as a black man who accepts slavery as the way things are meant to be and enjoys his place in that hierarchy.

Which is about as preachy as Django Unchained gets. Tarantino definitely has a point to make about slavery, and it is there, but it’s well-hidden behind a stout curtain of fun, which is ultimately what you’ll get from Django. If it doesn’t reach the heights of some his other films, it’s more than worthy of what happened.

Cast: Jamie Foxx as Django; Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz; Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin J. Candie; Kerry Washington as Broomhilda Von Shaft; Walton Goggins as Billy Crash; Don Johnson as Spencer “Big Daddy” Bennett; Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen; Laura Cayouette as Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwily; Dennis Christopher as Leonide Moguy; Cooper Huckabee as Roger “Little Raj” Brittle; Doc Duhame as Ellis Brittle; M. C. Gainey as Big John Brittle; Tom Savini as Tracker Cheney; Bruce Dern as Curtis Carrucan; James Russo as Dicky Speck; James Remar as Ace Speck; Tom Wopat as Marshall Gill Tatum; Franco Nero as Amerigo Vassepi.

[Django Unchained opens 12/25/12.]
(A Band Apart; The Weinstein Company --; Columbia Pictures; Django Unchained --; Django Unchained (Facebook) --; Django Unchained (Twitter) --
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Review by . Review posted Monday, December 17th, 2012. Filed under Features, Reviews.

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