It’s ironic that a filmmaker best-known for audio-visually quoting other films (and ripping off--sorry, paying homage to--their plot elements) should have such an instantly recognizable style, but indeed there’s no mistaking Inglourious Basterds for anything other than a Quentin Tarantino film. For the most part, that means those who couldn’t abide Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, or Kill Bill can confidently skip the filmmaker’s latest, a WWII fantasia of sorts that brings with it Tarantino’s usual “wall of talk” and gleeful violence. But wait a tick: in spite of a few bursts of bloody action, Inglourious Basterds is a comedy for the film-savvy, beginning with that title, Tarantino’s “skoolboy” spelling of the film that inspired him (Enzo G. Castellari’s 1978 spaghetti Dirty Dozen pic Inglorious Bastards).
The writer-director sets an immediate Leone vibe with Ennio Morricone twangs over the high lonesome countryside of Nazi-occupied France. In a farmhouse set-designed to replicate the effect of the cabin in John Ford’s The Searchers, Tarantino stages a patient scene that is Inglourious Basterds at its best. Crafty dialogue and great performances play into a cat-and-mouse game between SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) and a Frenchman (Denis Menochet) suspected of hiding Jews on his farm. Once we meet the Jewish-American band of brothers noted in the title--each beholden to Brad Pitt’s Tennessee-bred Lt. Aldo Raine for one hundred Nazi scalps--one might assume we’re in for Tarantino’s take on the Dirty Dozen subgenre, but Inglourious Basterds has more sprawling ambition.
The crux of the plot is the story of Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), a Jewish survivor of a Nazi slaughter, as she plots revenge against the Nazis in general and, in particular, the man who killed her family. Once hiding in plain sight as the proprietress of a Parisian cinema, Shosanna falls into the opportunity to wipe out the Nazi leadership at the premiere of a propaganda film. Meanwhile, the British government (represented by Mike Myers made up to resemble James Mason) targets the same premiere, sending an officer to liaison with the Basterds and actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a German double agent.
The whole enchilada (Big Kahuna burger?) turns out to be a self-referential commentary on the power of the medium, figuratively as propaganda or violent entertainment, and literally as the highly flammable fuel to a fire. Undercover agents play amateur actor at every turn, the professional actor takes on the role of her life, and a German sniper turned war hero (Daniel Bruhl) plays himself in the propaganda film, “Nation’s Pride.” For good measure, the main qualification of the British officer (Michael Fassbender) is that he has a background in film criticism (for further pandering, see the Cannes-ready one-liner “I’m French. We respect directors in our country”).
Brilliant as the sly, dogged Landa, Christoph Waltz won top acting honors at Cannes, but it’s Laurent who gives the best performance, single-handedly giving the picture emotional resonance. Though the film’s German and American brutes are courtly, the movie is not for the delicate sensibility; it all amounts to an entertaining but shallow comic-book take on WWII. Tarantino’s baby steps toward discipline only get him so far: Inglourious Basterds may be a whole lot of movie, but it’s also technically mature filmmaking to a thematically juvenile end.