A new Quentin Tarantino picture has come to represent something of an event film for many (in the best sense of that word), and as that unmistakable 1970s exploitation style typeface fills the screen – complete with a theme tune cribbed from an earlier, unrelated Django movie – it’s very apparent we’re heading into a similar post-Kill Bill (2003), semi-pastiche world yet again. However, in the same way that 2009’s Inglourious Basterds transcended that pulpy, ‘guys on a mission’ framework, Django Unchained (2012) is far from a glossy retread of those countless Spaghetti western intimations the director gorged himself on in his youth.
Here we’re offered a supremely entertaining, richly cinematic treat, which manages to work in some fun (and often very humorous) genre subversions and engaging character nuance amongst the frenetic gunplay and gloopy blood and viscera spilt. Once upon a time in the Deep South, a dentist-turned bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), rescues a slave who goes by the name of Django (Jamie Foxx). A kinship is established between the two and Schultz offers his new padre an option of joining his business, and in return, he’ll help find and rescue Django’s wife Broomhilda. She is currently the property of a flamboyant plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio – odious, yet magnetic), whose ranch is populated with female servants-cum-prostitutes and vicious mandingo fighting slaves.
There’s a real sense with Django Unchained that Tarantino is making a small (but welcoming) concession for the audience. The cinephile nods and lengthy running time are both still there, and for those who felt Inglourious Basterds sometimes veered close to a self-indulgent showcase of the director’s verbal dexterity (a failing which torpedoed 2007’s Death Proof) that element has been pared down, save for a tremendous, tension-filled dinner table scene at Candies’ ranch.
As always, Tarantino shows a canny grasp for casting an eclectic array of talent, many of whom perfectly convey that grizzled, Wild West look. You can almost see the director giddily sifting through his list of 70s film and TV has-beens. Foxx is fabulous in the lead, seamlessly morphing from feral-like to cock of the walk, whilst always maintaining a quiet dignity and a killer’s poise. Tarantino empowers his lead character early on, and the soaring juxtapositions achieved during Django’s first act of retribution delivered to his past tormentors, suggests Tarantino has come closest to making his own superhero film, of sorts.
Waltz mines that off-kilter quality he brought to Landa, but with a humanity and warmth this time around (amongst the cold-blooded efficiency), yet it’s Samuel L. Jackson as Candie’s slave master Stephen who truly astounds here, flexing the kind of acting muscles which have seldom been seen in him for the past decade or so. Django Unchained is a thundering triumph that rarely puts a foot wrong, and leaves you truly pumped for which well-trodden genre Tarantino will next tackle and re-contextualise in (hopefully) a similarly exhilarating manner.
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