3.5 stars. Rating: R, for relentless violence and gore, profanity, nudity and considerable ghastly behavior
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.28.12
Since Jews were given the vicarious opportunity to blow up Hitler and his high-ranking Nazi goons in 2009’s alternate-history Inglourious Basterds, we shouldn’t be surprised that cinematic bad boy Quentin Tarantino would grant African Americans similar cheap thrills, by scolding the pre-Civil War, slave-holding South in the same cheeky manner.
If Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles made you wince, by milking broad comedy from racism, this one will freeze your blood.
But make no mistake: Although Django Unchained definitely scores points in the ongoing debate about American race relations, at its heart this film is gleefully exploitative trash: giddily violent, gratuitously blood-soaked and unapologetically self-indulgent.
And yet ... undoubtedly a guilty pleasure. You just can’t help admiring Tarantino’s chutzpah.
He remains a walking film encyclopedia, with a particular fondness for the campy, low-budget sleaze of the late 1960s and ’70s, which ranged from the Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, to the blaxploitation flicks that made minor-league stars of Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, Richard Roundtree, Tamara Dobson and others.
Tarantino evokes them all in Django Unchained, a revisionist western that takes its title from a 1966 Sergio Corbucci rip-off of Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars — which, in turn, ripped off Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo — and starred Franco Nero as a coffin-carrying pistolero who blows into a town-turned-battle zone by feuding Mexican bandits and (you gotta love it) KKK members.
No surprise, then, that Nero himself pops up in a small part here; Tarantino loves to honor his predecessors. He also gets a kick out of “rescuing” familiar film and TV B-actors, and so you’ll spot the likes of Don Johnson, Tom Wopat, Don Stroud, Bruce Dern, Lee Horsley and Michael Parks.
And you’ve gotta love the parts assigned other visiting day players: Russ Tamblyn pops up as Son of a Gunfighter — a nod to the title of his own 1966 Spanish oater — which allows Amber Tamblyn an eyeblink appearance as “Daughter of a Son of a Gunfighter.” And speaking of the KKK, Jonah Hill is cast as “Bag Head #2” in a sequence played for high comedy, which mercilessly depicts clan members as the dim-bulb morons they undoubtedly were.
But all this comes later. As was the case with Leone’s similarly sprawling 1966 epic, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Tarantino — both writer and director here — takes his time setting up this narrative. It’s two years prior to the opening shot of the Civil War, and the story begins as Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a traveling dentist of questionable repute, encounters a couple of horse-riding toughs leading a small line of chained slaves, one of them Django (Jamie Foxx).