Quentin Tarantino’s latest is another genre mash up, this time blending the over-the-top action of the spaghetti western with the gritty modern revenge fantasy of the blaxploitation flicks of the ‘70s. The result is a gory and wildly entertaining action movie with standout performances from the entire cast.
The film opens with the iconic Luis Bacalov theme from “Django”, the ultraviolent Sergio Corbucci western from which this movie attributes its title. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend checking it out. Unlike the coffin-dragging hero of the original, this time around Django (Jaime Foxx) is a slave being taken through the south after having been sold away from his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). He’s soon purchased and rescued by the charming German bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who rides around in a dentistry wagon. Schultz needs Django to identify three criminals so that he may kill them and claim the reward. Django turns out to be a natural gunfighter, and the two of them become fast friends. Their friendship leads them to attempt a dangerous rescue of Django’s wife, in a parable of the German fantasy “The Twilight of the Gods”, who has been sold to a particularly villainous slave owner named Monsieur Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), owner of the notorious Candyland plantation. His pleasure involves forcing slaves to fight in gladiator style bare-knuckle wrestling matches.
There’s a lot to like about this movie, and the first place to begin is with the acting. Every actor gives a great performance. Jaime Foxx goes through a subtle and yet very noticeable evolution from slave to badass bounty hunter. He’s soft spoken and sympathetic when he needs to be, and extremely dangerous when he has to be. There are several sides to the character that make him a believable an endearing protagonist for this style of movie, and you’ll find you’re on his side when he punishes the wicked. Christoph Waltz turns in yet another flawless performance, making his Dr. Schultz an extremely likeable killer. His every action and expression comes across so nuanced and genuine.
The more surprising performances come from the villains. For the first time I think in any movie, Leonardo DiCaprio appears to be having fun with his character. He plays Monsieur Candie with such an obvious relish it’s difficult not to find him enticing. His despicable and grinning slave owner is nearly overshadowed by the almost unrecognizable Samuel L. Jackson, who plays his loyal family house slave, Stephen. It’s Stephen who’s shown to be the worst of the worst, which in this movie says a lot, and Jackson nails every line. In public he plays an Uncle Tom style slave for his master, but behind the scenes he’s wickedly sharp and even appears to be pulling the strings. All of these characters are aided by a terrific and often hilarious script, and I think that Tarantino's dialogue is benefited by the period setting, as it keeps his writing and characters focused on the story at hand.
The influences of the spaghetti westerns are obvious, with the frequent quick zooms, sweeping wide shots, and beautiful cinematography. The movie looks gorgeous, showcasing vast snowcapped mountain ranges in one scene and the desolate heat of the southern plantation in the next. As to be expected in a Tarantino movie, let alone a western, there’s a ton of glorified violence in this. It's the kind of ridiculous, borderline cartoonish violence that can only suit the sensationalist take on the western genre. While the action scenes and bloody set pieces are well crafted and entertainingly shot, what’s really nice to see is the use of blood packs. It might seem a minor detail, but in far too many action movies (especially in the past decade) there has been an abundance of CG blood spray. It’s welcoming to see the old “Robocop” style gratuitous blood geysers that can only come from practical effects.
The violence is well over-the-top, but this plays into the blaxploitation aspect of the film along with the often contemporary selection of songs for the soundtrack, which reinforces the crazed and ridiculous take on the setting. All of the villains, who in this case are white slave owners, are depicted as disgusting, inhuman, sadistic degenerates who deserve everything that’s coming to them by the inevitably gory end. It’s actually a little refreshing to see the American slaver owner dehumanized in such a way, and it more than suits the tone of the film.
“Django Unchained” is hardly a movie that stresses some kind of deeper meaning or offers analysis on slavery and the morals behind it. It paints a very stark black and white picture for the sake of pure entertainment value. This is a movie meant to thrill and excite you, making every shot in every scene interesting and captivating without drawing too much attention to itself. It’s the best kind of tribute to both of the genres there can be, and it could comfortably fit into a collection of either. It’s pure bloody fun at its finest.