My anticipation level was very high for Django Unchained. Director Quentin Tarantino is always interesting, and usually entertaining with a point to make under the over-the-top violence and coarse language in his films. He's a great fan of the B movies in 1970s cinema, and his films often play homage to them. He's clearly a movie lover, and over the years has jump-started some sagging film careers. John Travolta, Pam Grier, David Carradine, and Robert Forster come to mind. His films Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and Inglourious Basterds are favorites of mine. Django Unchained sounded like it would be a movie among Tarantino's best.
The basic plot line is this: In 1858, a German bounty hunter (masterfully played by Christoph Waltz) needs slave Django (a quiet and virile Jamie Foxx in perhaps his best screen role to-date) to help him find three criminals.A deal is made that if Django helps the bounty hunter, then the bounty hunter will free Django. The two men discover that they work well together, so they strike another deal. If the now-free Django will assist the bounty hunter through the winter, then the bounty hunter will help Django recover his wife Hildy (played by Kerry Washington), a slave who has been sold to a cruel Mississippi plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio, zestfully portraying a bad guy.)
Tarantino's script is witty and fresh, and his direction of the film shows him at the height of his powers. Yes, there is a lot of his trademark over-the-top violence, but the point of it all is to skewer racism. Django Unchained is a movie that works despite modern dialogue, a score that hardly matches the time and setting of the film (Jim Croce? Rap?), and a cast of actors who all (except Foxx's Django) chew the scenery with relish. It is vibrant, it is timely, and it is never dull despite its two hour and forty-five minute running time.
Let's talk about those actors for a minute. Foxx brings dignity and determination to the role of Django. Yet this movie becomes something else entirely without Christoph Waltz. Waltz is mesmerizing and he gets the choice lines in the movie. This role couldn't be further away from his Oscar-winning role as a Nazi in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, but for my money, Waltz is even better here.Then there's DiCaprio's playful performance as the movie's main villain. Samuel L. Jackson adds to his roster of classic roles as DiCaprio's sassy house slave. Don Johnson is lively as a plantation owner/ Ku Klux Klan member. Michael Parks, a staple of 1970s TV and a regular in Tarantino films, makes an appearance with Tarantino in the film. Jonah Hill shows up. Walton Goggins, a favorite of mine from TV's The Shield, incredibly got a flashy part in both in this film and in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. Dennis Christopher, as DiCaprio's lawyer, has his best screen role since his lead in 1979's Breaking Away. Tom Wopat, Lee Horsley, Russ Tamblyn, and Bruce Dern -- all actors well-past their heydays -- are all in the film. Tarantino is great about remembering older actors.
There are a lot of allusions to 1970s blaxploitation cinema. That's to be expected since Tarantino seems to be a fan. The result of all these disparate elements is one strikingly original, fascinating, and entertaining movie that seeks to show how silly racism is in all its forms. That's a movie to cheer about, and it is one of the great movies of 2012, which has turned out to be a great movie year. Grade: A.
I saw this film at the Pullman Square Marquee Cinema on December 29, 2012 with my friend Mark.