The audacity of writer-director Quentin Tarantino knows no bonds. Since the early 1990s, his distinctive voice and pure love for cinema has produced some of the most outrageous B-movie paeans. You expect an eclectic cast, expertly crafted dialogue, violent spurts, and gushers of blood, and an "Django Unchained" bursts forth with an unmistakable energy.
In his latest revisionist history, blaxploitation movies and spaghetti westerns collide in the Tarantino blender. Dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) liberates a slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), and trains him to be his gunslinger partner. They search for Django's wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), now owned by ruthless Mississippi plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo diCaprio), who thrills at the bloodlust of Mandingo fighting, and shows no mercy at torturing escaped slaves.
Christoph Waltz, Oscar winner for Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds," is a welcome addition to the Tarantino repertory, for he masterfully delivers the crackling dialogue -- his character's comic flair disguising the menace simmering just beneath his well-mannered facade. His freedom-fighter abolitionist is an anomaly of the times, but he sure makes a dandy mentor to Jamie Foxx's tough warrior. The likable Foxx becomes a big, bad John Shaft as a lethal weapon in deep South.
Eagerly embracing the villain role, a creepy-good diCaprio masks his sociopathic character through the charming, if oily, etiquette of uppercrust old money. There is nothing fun about his Candyland plantation, with its palpable undercurrent of danger. Yet Candie's biggest ally is Samuel L. Jackson's house slave Stephen. Jackson is a fiesty, crafty Uncle Tom, and he's having a blast playing this character who's bugged by Django's bravado.
The beautiful Kerry Washington is a formidable love interest, who must go through the ringer to be reunited with her husband.
While the headliners capably do the heavy lifting, the actors gamely filling the small roles and cameos deliciously season the film, heightening its entertainment value. As is his custom, Tarantino populates his cast with stars from the '60s, '70s and '80s, and they relish their part in this TV-land playground -- including Don Johnson, Lee Horsley, Don Stroud, Bruce Dern, Tom Wopat, Michael Parks and Russ Tamblyn. Where has Dennis Christopher ("Breaking Away") been? There are also a couple surprises that I'm not going to ruin, yet worth noting is the appearance of Franco Nero, who played the title character in the 1966 western "Django."
Tarantino is a filmmaker who knows specifically what he wants, and beautifully connects the elements -- dazzling cinematography by Robert Richardson, a sensational music score that mixes Ennio Morrocone with pop songs, rap classics and original work. The script's edgy humor is a welcome respite from the tensions of intolerance -- and just saying a KKK posse scene is a hoot sounds bizarre, I know, but you just have to see it for yourself.
Tarantino always goes over the top, so you know what you're getting into when you enter his universe. This is a genuine cinematic experience -- one that snaps, crackles and pops with such intensity -- that you walk out of the theater knowing you saw something utterly original and wasn't a movie by committee or focus groups or watered down in any way.
What Doesn't Work
Criticizing the splattering blood is futile, and brings to mind the Scorpion story (he promises not to bite the critter who saves him, but does anyway because he's a scorpion and that's what he does) -- afterall, this is Tarantino's signature. But the squeamish viewer that I am, had to avert my eyes for the finish of the Mandingo fight. And the finale is quite the bloodbath.
Much has been made about the frequent use of a racial slur, and the offensive word is meant to capture the time as well as the character of those who use it in a derogatory way. To this day, that word stings. Those who easily are offended by a litany of curse words in modern cinema will wince at this too. But the bigots are the bad guys here, and that is meant to frame it in context. This isn't a film intent on breeding hate, rather showing how misguided people were of that era.
3 1/2 stars
Starring: Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx, Leonardo diCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Johnson
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Rated: R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity