Film Review: Inglourious Basterds

A surprisingly tame war movie from king of pulp fiction Quentin Tarantino.

History will not repeat itself for Quentin Tarantino. While his Pulp Fiction arrived late at the Festival de Cannes and swept away the Palme d'Or in 1994, his World War II action movie Inglourious Basterds merely continues the string of disappointments in this year's Competition.

The film is by no means terrible—its running time of two hours and 32 minutes races by—but those things we think of as being Tarantino-esque, the long stretches of wickedly funny dialogue, the humor in the violence and outsized characters strutting across the screen, are largely missing.

Box-office expectations for this co-production that will see the Weinstein Co. handling domestic and Universal handling international distribution will still be considerable, but there isn't much chance of the kind of repeat business Tarantino normally attracts.

The film borrows its title but little else from Enzo Castellari's 1978 World War II film. In Tarantino's version, a small group of Jewish-American soldiers under the command of Brad Pitt's Aldo Raine terrorizes Nazi soldiers in Occupied France, performing shocking acts of savagery and corpse mutilations. How close they come to war crimes is unclear since, in a very un-Tarantino manner, he shows little more than a few scalpings that earn Aldo the nickname "Apache" from the Germans and one execution by a baseball bat.

As a matter of fact, for a war movie there is very little action. People talk, soldiers scheme, and a German war hero pesters a French woman in Paris. Otherwise, the action comes in short bursts such as the machine-gunning of a hiding Jewish family through a farmhouse’s floorboards and a shootout in a bistro.

Reportedly, Tarantino has been having a go at this script for over a decade, and it looks like he never licked the dramatic problems. The "Basterds" are formed in 1941, then suddenly it's 1944 and they have firmly established their reputation. But only one scene gives the flavor of what they do to deserve it.

Unlike Tarantino's previous films, Inglourious Basterds does not build to a climax through a series of ingenious episodes, each one upping the stakes and the tension, but rather it rolls the dice on one major operation.

The head of Germany's film business Joseph Goebbels wants to hold the premiere of a movie celebrating the exploits of the army's finest sharpshooter, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), in Paris. All the top Nazi brass will be in attendance, including Hitler. A British lieutenant (Michael Fassbender) parachutes behind enemy lines to organize the Basterds to blow up the cinema.

Unbeknownst to the Allies, however, the cinema's owner, Shosanna (Melanie Laurent), a Jew who seeks revenge for the execution of her family, has the same general idea, only she wants to locks the doors and set the theatre on fire. Best of all for her, the head of security for the event is none other than the villainous Nazi Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), who killed her family.

The maneuvering by both groups, the Basterds and Shosanna and her lover-assistant Marcel (Jacky Ido), with the Germans always seeming to be one step away from discovering the schemes, occupies most of the movie leading up to the premiere. Then Tarantino rewrites the end of World War II.

There are a few moments of classic Tarantino tension in the farmhouse when Col. Landa interrogates the French farmer hiding a Jewish family, in the bistro where an SS officer grows suspicious of a Basterd's German accent, and at the premiere where Col Landa appears to uncover one of the plots.

Otherwise the film lacks not only tension but those juicy sequences where actors deliver lines loaded with subtext and characters drip menace with icy wit. Tarantino never finds a way to introduce his vivid sense of pulp fiction within the context of a war movie. He is not kidding B-movies as he was with Grindhouse nor riffing on cinema as with Pulp Fiction and the Kill Bill films.

Tarantino has been quoted as saying of Inglourious Basterds, "This ain't your daddy's World War II movie." In fact, it pretty much is. His scalp-hunters are any Dirty Dozen on a mission, the bread and butter of war movies. The major difference is that some fine European actors simply aren't given enough to do.

Diane Kruger's role as a German movie star is close to being unnecessary. Brühl does have a key role as the war hero who plays himself in a German propaganda movie, but Til Schweiger is little more than a dress extra. On the other hand, Tarantino can waste time on a scene back in England, where the British officer receives his orders, simply for the opportunity to get Mike Myers into makeup and prosthetics that make him unrecognizable.

Even Pitt, sporting a somewhat overdone Southern accent, and Laurent, the film's two leads, don't get a chance to explore their characters in any depth. They are who they are the minute they appear on screen and nothing much changes through the film.
In fact, in your daddy's war movies, men and women often did undergo interesting transformations. So perhaps Tarantino is right.