Cornpone Southern Django
A day after its two major Golden Globes, Django Unchained sold out on to standby lines as the last of the Museum of Modern Art’s Oscar-touted “The Contenders.” To judge by laughs, applause and shouts of encouragement, director-writer Quentin Tarantino’s latest is a good bet. Not to belittle box-office appeal, however, it is not a good movie.
Ezra Pound flipped that poor poets plagiarize while talented ones appropriate and improve. After early originality and power, the former Video Archives clerk in question has been increasingly content to retread (often Asian) sources, revving up budgets and technology grandstanding to the groundlings instead of offering new or better. Kill Bill, for example, is piece-by-piece remake of, and inferior to, Toshiya Fujita’s two-part 1973-74 Lady Snowblood. Now he even cannibalizes titles, career-parallel buddy Takashi Miike’s disappointing Sukiyaki Western Django, in which QT plays a mumbling cowpoke.
Cleavon Little got laughs merely showing up as Blazing Saddles’ black sheriff, but Will Smith’s lawman James West elicited groans in the unfunny Wild Wild West TV rehash. Freed, or to be freed, slave Django (Jamie Foxx) is too bitter and steely-eyed to wisecrack or even smile as his pointed verbal bullets hit home.
Its underlined, reiterated racial epithet may rescue Huck Finn from Mrs. Grundy, and 1858 anachronisms like modern potty-mouthing and dynamite are not what detract from what could have been a rousing tale if the two-and-three-quarter-hours did not blow itself up. The understandably surly slave is rescued, or technically bought, by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), once a dentist like Bob Hope’s The Paleface Painless Potter and now a government-backed bounty hunter.
German and therefore above America’s peculiar institution -- ironic in light of that European nation’s track record -- he needs the black to identify the three white Brittle brothers with a price on their heads. They travel through Texas and then Tennessee after other wanted-poster desperados, the dapper white meanwhile teaching the black the tricks of his trade and reiterating his credo that it is a business divorced from morality, a body delivered dead-or-alive in exchange for cash.
It is unlikely -- and was then illegal -- that the slave knows how to read at all, or that the white would use a vocabulary highfalutin enough to confuse and anger adversaries (and draw cackles from the film audience). Django fits more and more into the dress code and demeanor of tried-and-true cinema gunslingers, as the two partners come to understand one another. Schultz grows so empathetic that, foregoing purely financial motivations, he concocts a plan to find and save his companion’s German-speaking slave wife in Chickasaw County, Mississippi.
Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington) is at the Candieland Plantation of odious Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), where the film’s Siegfried search goes way astray. Milked for easy PC laughs, the two heroes’ unnecessarily elaborate masquerade goes on much too long, and despicable house servant Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) exposes them.
Acting for morality rather than money, Schultz reacts spontaneously and plunges the whole stagecoach off a cliff into mindless butchery. Whereas there was savage beauty and irony in the ’60-‘70s violence of Penn, Peckinpah, and Leone -- whose samurai cowboy was a hit with African-Americans -- the coda of Django Unchained is mere benumbing splatter (punctuated by the director’s fetish for torture masks). This is no commentary on racism or slavery, only a gimmick; not a satire but a pandering to the herd; not realism or revenge, but caricature, infantile mayhem and in-jokes like original, 1966 Django Franco Nero cast as Amerigo Vessepi.
(Released by The Weinstein Company and rated “R” by MPAA.)