Imagine Cinema Paradiso with a body count. Or perhaps Where Eagles Dare, but a lot more “scalpy.”
Actually, to call other film titles to the mix is a disservice to Inglourious Basterds. For while it provides shout-outs to genres from noir to French new wave to espionage thrillers, it exists on a loopy plane which director Quentin Tarantino calls his own. As a filmmaker, he's seems as charged as he's been in a while, and technically, this is his most accomplished film to date.
Those expecting the violent blasts of blood that sometimes mark the auteur's past films may be disappointed that the months of highlighting the more tawdry moments of the film make up a small portion of its two-and-a-half-hour runtime.
In fact, the titular “Basterds” are merely bit players in this revenge-fueled revisionist fantasy, and, while amusing, they are hardly the most magnetic characters the film provides. The rest of Basterds is a slow-burning fuse through its rich dialogue, steeped in film trivia, punctuated with trademark gallows humor, and essentially serving as cinematic catnip for film geeks of all stripes.
In the thick of World War II, a small group of mostly Jewish-American soldiers, led by hillbilly hell-raiser Lt. Aldo Raine (played with mugging backwoods glee by Brad Pitt), are dropped behind enemy lines to, well, execute Nazis with extreme prejudice. But this is no Dirty Dozen remix, as we barely even meet the majority of the men, and not all of them even survive the few scenes they’re in. They are, from a plot perspective, completely expendable but rather entertaining.
The real tale of Basterds is that of Shosanna Dreyfus (played by a haunting, haunted Melanie Laurent), a young woman who escapes the sinister clutches of Nazi Col. Hans Landa (played by Christoph Waltz, giving unfiltered evil a human face) only to reestablish herself as a French movie theater owner years later. Her theater is selected by the high command to screen the latest propaganda picture, a premiere in which the top brass of the SS is to attend. Upon learning this, Shosanna sets out to exact revenge and consequently end the war. Shosanna’s porcelain features perfectly shield her steely reserve, making her the ideal decoy to slide through the ranks unnoticed and conduct her two-person mission. And it is fitting that Tarantino decides to use David Bowie’s theme from Cat People during French actress Laurent’s climactic scene, for she possesses the alluring physical presence of a young Natassja Kinski, but with wider dramatic range.
In fact, Tarantino has gone out of his way to amass some astounding inter-continental talent, most notable the aforementioned Waltz, who is so measured and precise with his delivery, it is like watching a master class in malevolence. The director then drops his players into confined areas like scorpions in a barrel, and we agonizingly, breathlessly witness the results. Scene after scene plays like a Mexican standoff in which the participants are unwilling to back down.
Within these scenes, Tarantino demonstrates a technical maturity as a director that has been seen in glimpses in past films but never as consistently as displayed here, and his textured dialogue is rife with nods to cinematic legacy, social commentary, and flashes of nihilistic abandon.
Basterds may not be the complete “masterpiece” that Tarantino has proclaimed it to be – there are some stretches that appear superfluous, like any scene involving director Eli Roth as the bat-toting “Bear Jew.” But it’s hard to imagine anyone with the slightest passion for film not being repeatedly rewarded throughout.
And while Tarantino's World War II rewrite may cause headaches for future high school history teachers, those who enjoy dialogue as dense and layered as a novel will find much glory in this bunch of Basterds.