In some ways, a new Tarantino film is a very much like a pair of Clarks, a Vauxhall car or a bottle of seven quid wine from Sainsbury’s. Reassuringly, you know pretty much in advance what you’re going to get. Unlike the desert boots, the Corsa or the Rioja, though, you can generally count on a Tarantino films to show enough sparks of cinematic magic to make the whole affair live long in the memory.
Django Unchained certainly looks like it fulfils most of the expectations that a cinema-going public weaned on Tarantino’s earlier work will have. It follows heist-movie Reservoir Dogs (1992), martial arts revenge film Kill Bill (2003-4) and war romp Inglorious Basterds (2009), by again paying fond tribute to an unfashionable genre. This time, Tarantino has remade a western, but with a twist: picking on Carbucci’s Django and Francisci’s Hercules Unchained to inspire a story of a freed slave (Jamie Foxx) wreaking revenge on the white men who dominate nineteenth-century American society and have hold of his wife.
Tarantino’s treatment has lent the film a reliable whiff of provocation: its subject, liberal use of the n-word and its par-for-the-course bloody violence, have already sparked debate with Spike Lee kicking off online and Krishnan Guru-Murthy rising to the bait too easily on British TV. Of course, we’ve seen controversy with Tarantino before. The ‘is it too violent?’ question being a particularly limp one.
Like Tarantino’s previous films, Django Unchained provides both a platform for stars from the past we thought were long forgotten (think John Travolta in Pulp Fiction or Pam Grier in Jackie Brown) or shows us stars we though we knew in radically different ways (Uma Thurman as sword-bearing ninja or Robert De Niro as a weed-smoking small-time crook). Here Django casts, Titanic whimperer Leonardo DiCaprio as a menacingly evil plantation owner whilst the iconic cool Samuel L. Jackson loses the Kangol and is cast as Stephen, his simpering right-hand-man.
We can also generally expect a Tarantino’s film to feature a somewhat toe-curlingly embarrassing cameo from the man himself (check) and for the films to be slightly over-long and rather clumsily put together at the final edit. Kind of clunky. That’s OK though, because the music will be good and there is enough going on to keep our attention. The bloated-yet-compelling Pulp Fiction being a case in point.
Django Unchained has most of this. It is most effective when it comes to character. Christophe Waltz gives a notable turn as dentist-turned Bounty Hunter who frees Django from his irons and kicks off the movie’s plot. A performance not as memorable, however, as his as a particularly sinister Nazi ‘jew hunter’ Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds. It is Jackson, who is almost unrecognisable from his previous Tarantino roles and, in particular, DiCaprio who steal the show. The latter, as Calvin Candie is alternately charming and brutal, echoing, in fact, Waltz’s role in Basterds.
You can normally count on tense set pieces to be the highest points of Tarantino movies. These are scenes that stay in the memory long after you’ve forgotten the rest of the film. Reservoir Dog’s ear surgery to a Stealers Wheel soundtrack set the mark. This was followed by Pulp Fiction’s adrenaline shot through the heart and Jackson’s fire and brimstone hitman speech. Even the woeful second half of Death Proof doesn’t seem quite so bad when you remember Vanessa Ferlito’s lapdance. A highlight of Basterds was, equally, a set piece, set in a Munich beer cellar where an Allied undercover agent infiltrates some heavy duty Nazi drinking. This is, however, where Django Unchained lets us down. The film has its fair share of good moments, most of them stating DiCaprio and Jackson, but nothing approaching the sheer heart-thumping tension of his earlier works.
Yes, there is excitement, yes there is violence. Yes, it looks great – I particularly liked the flashbacks, themselves shot on pseudo vintage film. Django Unchained is a good movie, but mediocre Tarantino: Tarantino restrained. Maybe describing it as the movie equivalent of a warm Pinot Grigiot or a Vauxhall Astra is doing the director a disservice, but Tarantino is here on, what is for him, uncharacteristically comfy territory.