It's easy to see that Quentin Tarantino loves to play cowboys and Indians — make that cowboys and slavers in his case — and that's what makes “Django Unchained” so much fun to watch. When this former video store clerk and lifelong B-movie and spaghetti Western geek-turned-filmmaker is enjoying himself, the audience is bound to share his boyish delight, providing viewers are fans who at least to some degree understand his twisted-little-boy sense of humor.
The writer-director who most recently rewrote the final days of World War II with “Inglourious Basterds” now turns his revisionist eyes west — well, make that south in his case — basing his new film very loosely on a 1966 Italian oater called “Django,” directed by Sergio Corbucci and starring Franco Nero (husband of Vanessa Redgrave and Sir Lancelot in Joshua Logan's “Camelot”) in the title role.
The film about a lone gunslinger dragging a Gatling gun around in a coffin became a cult classic, inspiring more than 40 unofficial sequels over the next 45 years, of which “Django Unchained” is the latest.
But aside from the protagonist's name and the fact that Nero makes a cameo appearance here, Tarantino's self-described “rip-off” is a completely unrelated story set in the South two years before the Civil War, starring Jamie Foxx (“Ray”) as Django, a slave who is recruited by German-born ex-dentist turned bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz of “Inglourious Basterds”) to help track down the murderous Brittle brothers. Schultz promises to free Django when the outlaws are captured — or killed.
But once this is accomplished, the two men remain together as partners, tracking down outlaws while Schultz trains Django to become “the fastest gun in the South” and the freed man focuses on finding and rescuing Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the wife he lost to slave traders years before.
The trail finally leads Django and Schultz to the sadistic Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, excelling and reveling in his first villainous role), who rules the fiefdom known as the Candyland plantation, advised by old Stephen, the fiercely loyal head of the house slaves (a fiercely believable Samuel L. Jackson) and protected by a crew of gunslinging overseers that includes the ruthless Billy Crash (a terrifically loathsome Walt Goggins of TV's “Justified”).
Among Candie's many slaves is Broomhilda, and Django and Schultz must devise a way to free her, which inevitably leads to the kind of bloody, over-the-top violence that has always been a Tarantino trademark.
The gunfights are many and some are highly stylized in the Italian tradition (i.e. one man cutting down four or five opponents with an incredibly fast draw and fanning action), one man suffers castration by gunshot, several are blown to smithereens and even the horses are rigged with blood squibs.
But there's comedy as well, and the laughs are usually on the bad guys, especially when a band of hooded, torch-carrying slave-trackers are impeded because they're having trouble seeing where they're going due to the crudely-fashioned masks covering their faces.
The cast is loaded with familiar faces (Bruce Dern, Don Johnson, Michael Parks, Rex Linn) in roles large and small, but the standouts, of course, are Waltz, with that sharklike smile that's at once chilling and winning, and Foxx as the stalwart hero, almost single-handedly and inadvertently preventing the War between the States, all in the name of love.
And the music that accompanies the mayhem is imaginative, as always, with James Brown and 2Pac belting “Unchained,” Jim Croce crooning “I Got a Name” and plenty of orchestral grandeur from Ennio Morricone himself.
Tarantino finally got to make his spaghetti Western, threw in some painful U.S. history to boot, plus a passel of subversive laughs, and he got all the seasonings just right.
— Gene Triplett