It's wonderful to watch a talented professional mature in their skills and with the release of Inglourious Basterds that's what's clearly happened with wunderkind director and film biz bad boy Quentin Tarantino. His earlier works are best typified by Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction, interesting stories that are so extraordinarily violent that the graphic violence appears in lieu of story or character development. Let me put this another way: Inglorious Basterds is the first Tarantino film I've actually enjoyed.
You've probably already been exposed to a number of different trailers and previews from the film that feature Brad Pitt as the tough Tennessee-born redneck Lt. Aldo Raine. What you can't tell from the previews is that the film is most assuredly a revisionist history of the American (and English and French) resistance to the Germans.
Lt. Raine is the leader of a group of Jewish soldiers drafted to go deep behind enemy lines and wreak havoc, not just killing Nazis but torturing and scalping them, creating fear and great anxiety in the German high command. Raine describes the "inglourious basterds" of his unit as a bushwhacking guerilla army and assures recruits that each "owes me 100 Nazi scalps".
The film opens, however, with the antagonist, the evil and cunning SS Colonel Hans Landa (a stand-out role for Christoph Waltz), toying with French dairy farmer Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet), who is harboring a family of hunted Jewish farmers, including daughter Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent). Within a few minutes, it's clear who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, a necessary element in good war films, though there is definitely some moral ambiguity as the basterds prove a rowdy, violent bunch.
I really liked Inglourious Basterds even with its few moments of extreme violence (it is, after all, a Tarantino film and that's one of his trademarks). To the woman who asked me before the film started "is this a comedy?" I now say "no, but it's a darn good movie and does have some quite amusing scenes." If you don't like Tarantino's previous films, you might well give this one a chance, and if you're already a fan, you'll definitely enjoy his maturation as a director and storyteller.
Tarantino is an unabashed fan of cinema, from the sublime classics to goofy stuff like Chinese martial arts films and even the hilarious marionette movie Team America: World Police. As a result, most of his movies overtly play homage to a genre, and appreciation of that genre helps you understand many of the narrative devices he employs. For example, without having seen martial arts films, you'd be fairly baffled at some of the scene cuts and camerawork in Kill Bill.
Inglourious Basterds pays homage to the classic Italian "spaghetti" westerns and war films and the movie is even more of a delight if you understand the language of those films. Your first clue? The production company for this film is called Visiona Romantica. Of course, there's very little romantic about the film, so it's a deliberately ironic name, but, along with the slow, twangy guitar, that just adds to the fun of the film.
The movie unfolds in chapters entitled "Once Upon a Time...", "Inglourious Basterds", "German Night in Paris", and "Operation Kino", each almost acting as its own movie within the movie. The feel of the film, however, the sets, cinematography, wardrobe and color all contribute to a slightly self-mocking War Film, in capital letters, of course. When German Nazi killer Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger) is introduced, his name shows up on screen almost as a silent movie title.
There are also some great lines in the film too, notably including when SS Colonel Landa is interrogating farmer LaPadite about the whereabouts of the missing Jewish dairy farmers from the neighborhood:
Landa: "What have you heard?"
LaPadite: "Only rumors"
Landa: "I love rumors! Facts can be so misleading, but rumors, whether or not they're true, can be so revealing..."
In another scene, when we're introduced to Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth), who relishes beating Nazi's with a baseball bat while dreaming of playing in Yankee stadium, Lt. Raine explains to the one Nazi that they're going to let live post-ambush: "Yeah, well, watching Donny beat Nazis is the closest we get to going to the movies."
The overarching theme is revenge. The revenge of the Jews on the Nazis, as personified by the Jewish guerilla troops attacking and ensuring that "the Germans are going to be sickened by" their actions. The theme occurs again in the film in an important way, but I won't spoil it for you by explaining.
The revenge takes place with the basterds learning that the film "Nation's Pride" is going to premiere in France to an audience of key German military personnel, including the film's star Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) and a variety of senior Gestapo officers. They hatch a plot, called Operation Kino, to blow up the theater during the screening, in a delightfully self-referential comment on the revisionist screening of Inglourious Basterds that we, the audience, watch.
As you might expect, there are complications and things don't unfold as planned, but unlike the recent dramatic WWII movie Valkyrie where any half-clued viewer already knew the ultimate outcome, in Inglourious Basterds the unraveling plot surprises at more than one turn and the ending proves quite satisfying, even if verisimilitude gets left behind.
And as always with a Tarantino film, keep an eye open for other films and how they appear. For example, the reference to King Kong was brilliant, see if you can figure out where Hitchcock's terrific Sabotage shows up, and pay attention to the film critic in the movie and his eventual demise. Lovely stuff.
Finally, the more I think about what Quentin Tarantino has accomplished with his most mature film work to date, the more I am impressed. If you're a student of film and can handle just a few minutes of shocking, graphic violence (and surprisingly little at that), then I strongly recommend Inglourious Basterds to you.