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Inglourious Basterds

A Delirious Genre-Bending Revenge Fantasy

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

After a protracted development and a polarizing response at the Cannes Film Festival in May, Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s (Grindhouse: Death Proof, Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs) sixth film as writer/director, a revenge fantasy set during World War II, arrives in multiplexes just in time to reinvigorate a disappointing summer. Inglourious Basterds isn’t so much a departure for Tarantino (it’s his first period film), but his usual narrative and visual preoccupations and obsessions are transferred to a WWII setting combined with spaghetti western conventions. Far more focused and, despite its two-and-a-half hour running time, far better premised than Kill Bill (and less self-indulgent), Inglourious Basterds, succeeds narratively, thematically, visually, and emotionally.

Tarantino divides Inglourious Basterds into five chapters (“Once Upon a Time In…Nazi-Occupied France", “Inglourious Basterds", "German Night in Paris", “Operation Kino", and “Revenge of the Giant Face”) and two storylines. One storyline follows the “Basterds", a Jewish-American squad dropped into Nazi-occupied France pre-Normandy invasion to hunt and kill Nazis (and undermine German morale) led by Lt. Aldo “The Apache” Raine (Brad Pitt). The other storyline follows Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a French-Jewish woman hiding in plain sight in Paris as the owner of a cinema.

Raine’s “men on a mission” include baseball bat-wielding Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth), a.k.a. the “Bear Jew,” Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), an Austrian with a deep hatred of the Nazis and a body count to match (he’s freed by the Basterds after a bloody assault on a prison), Cpl. Wilhelm Wicki (Gedeon Burkhard), a German-born Jew and naturalized American, Pfc. Smithson Utivich (B.J. Novak), a.k.a. “Little Man,” Pfc. Omar Ulmer (Omar Doom), Pfc. Gerold Hirschberg (Samm Levine), Pfc. Andy Kagan (Paul Rust), Pfc. Michael Zimmerman (Michael Bacall), and Simon Sakowitz (Carlos Fidel).

After Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), an Audie Murphy-style German war hero and the star of a Leni Riefenstahl-style propaganda film, “Nation’s Pride", becomes infatuated with Shosanna, he convinces Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth), Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, to premiere the film at Shosanna’s theater. The Nazis’ top leaders are set to appear at the premiere. Shosanna sees the perfect opportunity to exact revenge and begins preparations for a night her German audience won’t soon forgot (assuming, of course, they survive the night). Shosanna’s projectionist and confidante, Marcel (Jacky Ido), reluctantly supports her decision.

When news of the premiere reaches the Allies, the British send Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), a British film critic, author, and expert on inter-war German cinema, to rendezvous with the Basterds and Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a German actress and double agent and put “Operation Kino” into action. To complicate the Basterds and Shosanna’s plans, Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a ruthless German SS officer introduced in the first scene as the aptly nicknamed “Jew Hunter” (and the man responsible for killing Shosanna’s family) heads up the security detail for the premiere.

The storylines converge around the audacious (if preposterous) plan to decapitate the German high command and end the war at Shosanna’s theater. From the opening scene, an homage to Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, it’s clear that Inglourious Basterds bears little resemblance to earlier World War II films. Tarantino adopts the visual style, dark humor, and punctuated violence of the spaghetti western, but combines those conventions with long-take, tension-building dialogue scenes, the World War II setting, French New Wave tropes (including the cineaste’s passion for everything cinema-related), and a bloody, cathartic revenge-fantasy climax.

As with Tarantino’s previous films, the lead roles are filled with talented performers, while some of the minor roles are filled by lesser-known actors or, in the case of writer-director Eli Roth, one of Tarantino’s closest friends. Diane Kruger and Mélanie Laurent give memorably resonant performances while Christoph Waltz, an actor new to American audiences, gives a quietly menacing performance as Colonel Landa. Pitt goes broad as Raine, but like every performance except Roth’s, who proves he should remain behind the camera and not in front of it, Pitt’s performance fits the character as Tarantino wrote him. Pitt’s Raine is full of swaggering, testosterone-fuelled egotism. It both adds levity where it’s most necessary and reflects the character’s essence.

Well before the end credits roll, however, moviegoers will realize they haven’t been watching a war film set in an alternate history (Tarantino titles the first chapter “Once Upon a Time…” after all). While moviegoers will probably give Tarantino a pass, it’s unlikely they’ll overlook a misleading marketing campaign that emphasizes Raine’s Basterds when Raine and his men are periodically sidelined to focus on Shoshanna and the premiere of the propaganda film. Of course, moviegoers can just blame Harvey and Bob Weinstein for purposely mis-marketing Inglourious Basterds, but they’ll be grateful two and a half hours later when they emerge from Tarantino’s revenge fantasy.