Just when you thought Quentin Tarantino’s hipper-than-thou brand of eccentric and ultra-violent moviemaking had overstayed its welcome by a couple of films, he goes and makes Inglourious Basterds, his most mature and least idiosyncratic film yet — and it manages to be that while simultaneously rewriting World War II history in a blaze of fantasy revenge.
Basterds distills all that’s great about Tarantino — his vast love and knowledge of cinema and his obvious talent for creating memorable scenes — and is absent of some of his less desirable qualities — namely, that insufferable snarkiness — to create an undeniably absorbing and entertaining piece of work.
While the worship of Tarantino by the legions of fanboy film bloggers and new media is absurd (Total Film named him the 12th best director ever in 2007, ahead of guys like John Ford, Robert Altman, Jean Renoir, Luis Buñuel and Yasujiro Ozu), the guy knows his way around both a camera and a script, and it shows.
The titular Basterds occupy just one storyline of the film, and it’s easily the least compelling. Brad Pitt gets top billing as a redneck commander of a squad whose only goal is to kill Nazis and take as many scalps along the way as possible, but it’s Michael Fassbender as Lt. Archie Hicox and Eli Roth as a fearsome baseball bat-wielding slaughterer known as the Bear Jew who make the biggest impression.
The true star of the film though is Christoph Waltz, who is endlessly magnetic as the coolly ruthless Nazi Col. Hans Landa. Nicknamed the Jew Hunter, Landa does his job efficiently and as charismatically as an ethnic cleanser can be. Waltz will assuredly be Oscar-nominated and has to be considered the front winner to win for Best Supporting Actor.
Also winning is Mélanie Laurent as Shoshanna Dreyfus, a survivor of the murderous Landa who is hiding out in Paris as a movie theater proprietor. When a German war hero (Daniel Brühl) takes a liking to her, she’s put in position to host a gala Nazi film premiere, and she plots to burn down the theater. Elsewhere, the Basterds are planning a similar line of attack with the help of German film star Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger).
Although Inglourious Basterds is replete with the near-fetishistic depictions of violence that Tarantino has built a reputation on, these seem like less the centerpiece of this film than several extremely well crafted scenes that build from a slow burn to sizzling intensity. These include the film’s opening with Landa hunting for Jews at a dairy farmer’s home and a scene in a bar that begins with a card game and ends with a Mexican standoff.
Tarantino weaves together his various storylines cleanly and with an effortless air in Inglourious Basterds. It’s his mostly purely entertaining and structurally accomplished film yet. Sure, the soundtrack and typeface choices are of the somewhat grating Tarantino “ironic” variety, but in the elements that really count, Tarantino has delivered.
The Blu-ray Disc
Inglourious Basterds is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 2.40:1. Right from the start, it’s clear that the visual presentation will be gorgeous with the immaculately sharp and colorful shots of golden sunlight grazing a grass field. The film never loses any sharp detail over the course of its running time, and though it exists in a mostly earthy color palette, there are moments of pop-out color, like Shoshanna’s red dress. Contrast is superb, and black levels are deep and even, which is quite apparent in a striking scene where a character flicks a cigarette into a giant mound of film stock. The audio is presented in Dolby 5.1 DTS-HD, and it’s a louder-than-average mix that is discernibly flawless.
The Inglourious Basterds Blu-ray is a two-disc affair, with the second disc being reserved for a Mac and PC compatible digital copy. Supplements on the first disc are annoyingly not all in high def, but those that are include a nice roundtable discussion with critic Elvis Mitchell, Tarantino and Pitt, as well as several deleted scenes, interviews with actor Rod Taylor, who played Winston Churchill in the film, and a humorous making-of of the film-within-a-film, Nation’s Pride. In standard def, Nation’s Pride is presented in its entirety (just six minutes), as well as a short look at the film that inspired the title, Enzo Castellari’s Inglorious Bastards, and some other ephemera, including posters and trailers.
The Bottom Line
The Tarantino geeks won’t be let down by Basterds, but it’s a strong film even for those who find themselves wanting to simply dismiss his work.