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Inglourious Basterds is Quentin Tarantino’s Crash. Neither the sweeping war movie nor the action film its title and its marketing suggests, Basterds is more of a talky drama about a variety of coincidentally connected characters living separate lives which just happen to have a lot of Swastikas in them. Sure Tarantino occasionally indulges in the gory brutality that is his trademark, but only when one of his characters stops talking long enough to take a breath. They don’t take many breaths. That’s fortunate since brilliant babbling distracts from the movie’s lack of narrative. When his ciphers are dishing you’re too busy reveling in the intense exchange of threats, ideas, and ruminations to notice that the film abandoned most of its cast half an hour ago for no particular reason.
It plays out like a series of vignettes in which different archetypes are forced to deal with the Nazi occupation in different ways. For some its survival, for others its revenge. Ok ultimately it’s all about revenge, but this is not the story of a group of hard-bitten, bloodthirsty Jewish-American soldiers sent behind enemy lines to wreak havoc on every Nazi in sight. Aside from the occasional scalping, we never see any of that. Yes Brad Pitt plays Lt. Aldo Raine, a part-Apache American soldier leading a group of Nazi killers called the Basterds, and yes they terrorize occupied territory by slaughtering SS officers. It all happens off camera. The Basterds only show up when they have something to say or when Tarantino needs a warm body to stand between someone else and a gun fight. They are one minor component in a movie filled with different, mostly unrelated characters whose lives may or may not become intertwined for a big fiery finale which is meant to, even if it sort of makes a mess of it, bring the whole thing together.
Still there’s revenge. Separate characters living separate lives stand around and talk about how they’re going to get it or how they’ve gotten it. Raine and his men take the direct approach, killing Nazis and carving swastikas in the heads of the ones they leave alive. Or there’s Shoshanna, a Jewish girl hiding in plain sight at a Paris movie theater playing German propaganda films, and letting her Nazi hate simmer as she lives and relives every horrible injustice she’s suffered.
If there’s a main character in this story it’s Col. Hans Landa, nicknamed “The Jew Hunter”. He’s a villain of the slick talking, smiling, unusually friendly variety. Darth Vader may be scary, but there’s nothing more sinister than a man who guzzles a glass of milk and presents a toothy grin before, in the most reasonable manner possible, ordering you dead. This particular smiling bad guy has been appointed by Hitler to hunt down Jews left hiding in occupied France and he’s very good at his job. Landa is not simply a Nazi officer, he’s more of a detective, a Nazi Sherlock Holmes with all the observational powers and persuasive abilities of the world’s greatest investigator, minus any vestige of humanity.
Nazi Sherlock Holmes makes for one hell of a villain and as played by Austrian Christoph Waltz, Landa is by far the best thing about Basterds. Walts slips out Taratino’s heavily stylized, brilliantly written patter with a German accent and all the sinister subtlety of Satan given physical form. He steals every scene he’s in with his creepy, all-knowing charm. If you see Inglourious Basterds for no other reason, see it for him.
What Basterds lacks isn’t great writing or even acting. What it’s missing is a balance between dialogue and story. There’s not one, unified narrative here. Rather it’s a bunch of short scenes held together mostly through snappy dialogue. It feels as if Tarantino came up with this strange, fever-dream ending in which the power of cinema is used to conjure up a Jewish devil to send Hitler back to hell, and then came up with this amazing opening in which we meet an iconic Nazi villain… and then had no real way to connect them together. Instead Quentin as both writer and director, seems to believe that if everyone keeps talking, he can justify anything. It’s kind of like watching him interviewed. Enjoyable, engrossing sounds come out of his mouth, but sometimes he’s not really saying much.
See Basterds for Tarantino’s brilliant dialogue of for Waltz’s genius performance, or for Mike Myers bizarre, heavily prostheticed cameo as a British general. See it to watch a film critic, for once, play the hero or to buy into Tarantino’s bizarre fantasy in which Hitler is defeated by the one-two combination of talking and French cinema. Just don’t see it for the gunfights or the battles, or the action scenes being shoved down your throat by the movie’s marketing. They don’t exist. If you’re looking for Kill Bill 3 go elsewhere. Inglourious Basterds is a flawed premise turned into a flawed story full of characters so unique and vibrant, delivering dialogue so intense and captivating, that it’s worth putting up with what’s missing.