After sitting around for several weeks, I finally plopped the Django Unchained DVD into my machine last night and gave it a whirl. As it started up, I thought back to the very first time I ever heard of director/writer Quentin Tarantino. It was many, many years ago, back in the pre-internet intensive days of 1992 when his first major motion picture, Reservoir Dogs, was making quite a buzz at film festivals and newspapers (remember those?) lauded the work of this wonderful new director. By the time the movie finally reached my area, I absolutely had to see it.
Watching Reservoir Dogs proved quite the experience, like sitting in the passenger seat of a car which was being driven by a complete maniac, all the time wondering when/if you’re going to crash. Other than the somewhat ambiguous ending, I loved, loved, loved what I saw. Never mind that later we found the movie “homaged” (or, if you’re less tolerant, ripped off) City on Fire. Regardless, Reservoir Dogs was such an incredibly unique experience, at that time, that I had to see more of Tarantino’s works.
His follow up film, 1994’s Pulp Fiction, cemented his reputation as a director/writer to watch, but as much as I liked it, it wasn’t as good an overall film, IMHO, as Reservoir Dogs, mainly because for me the Bruce Willis segment was lacking (though I would hasten to add that I did love both the prologue to this segment, featuring Christopher Walken’s demented “watch” sequence, and the non-chronologically revealed fate of John Travolta’s Vincent Vega). Mr. Tarantino’s follow up films, Jackie Brown and Kill Bill (Volume 1 and 2), unfortunately, didn’t do all that much for me, though I’ll admit up front I’m in a minority with those particular feelings. Jackie Brown, for all the fascinating actors, never really engaged me story-wise. Kill Bill appeared to be Mr. Tarantino doing his personal version of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, only using 70’s karate-type action instead of the wild west. The question I had after seeing the film(s) was why bother with Mr. Tarantino’s version when I can just watch the Eastwood original?
Mr. Tarantino’s next major motion picture, Deathproof, part of the two-part Grindhouse motion picture set, was absolutely great…at least in the latter half of the film. I absolutely, positively loved the film’s second act while absolutely, positively felt the complete opposite about the surprisingly uninteresting dialogue-filled first half.
Inglourious Basterds was next and proved one of the first BluRay purchases I ever made…but I have yet to actually see the film. One day soon.
Which brings us back to Django Unchained. As you can probably imply from the above, my one time love for Quentin Tarantino’s works has fizzled over the years. Given that I haven’t found the time or inspiration to sit through his last film and the length of time it took me to get to his most recent one, my frame of mind while watching it wasn’t the best.
Yet as Django Unchained rolled out, I was very much into the film. It was bloody, it was violent, it was profane…and yet also quite hilarious (the movie’s best bit has to be the whole pre-“hooded raid” segment…the dialogue there by the actors, and Don Johnson especially, was hysterical).
Sadly, this highlight of the film led into the second and final act, which while reasonably entertaining was nowhere near as good as what preceded it. Like Death Proof, we had roughly one half of a great film. Unlike Death Proof, the better stuff was in the first half.
Before I go any farther, a quick recap of the film’s plot: Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave in the days just before the Civil War. He was separated from his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) and longs to get her back to his side. In comes Dr. King Schultz (the excellent Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter, who needs Django to identify a trio of criminal brothers he is hunting. He frees Django and, after getting his prey, takes a liking to his new partner. King asks Django to continue to work with him for the winter and, following that, will help him find and free his wife.
It is after winter (and the aformentioned Don Johnson sequence) that we proceed to the movie’s second act, where King and Django find that Calvin Candie (a slimy Leonardo DiCaprio) purchased Broomhilda and has her at his plantation. The duo attempt a variation on the Trojan Horse (this movie features plenty of echoes to mythology) to try to spirit the woman from his clutches.
The problem with this half of the film is two fold. For one, it feels disjointed, as if Mr. Tarantino realized belatedly while filming that the movie was running too long and was forced to cut a lot of material in the telling of this last half of the film. For example, Candie’s sister Lara Lee (Laura Cayouette) is presented in a total of perhaps three or four very brief scenes and barely has any dialogue…and yet I get the feeling the audience is supposed to view her as every bit as evil and slimy as her brother. However, we simply see too little of her to get much more than a hint of possible incest between brother and sister and almost no real sense of evil. We’re also briefly introduced to Candie’s “trackers”, a group of mysterious gunfighters in the man’s employ, and the most intriguing of the group is Zoe Bell’s female tracker, a woman who is seen a grand total of maybe two times, who wears a blood red scarf to hide the lower half of her face. Who is she? How did she end up being part of this all male gunfighter group? Is she indeed a deadly gunfighter? Why does she hide the lower half of her face? All good questions, NONE of which are ever resolved. She appears very briefly in one scene and the next time she appears Django kills her and her crew in a matter of a few seconds.
So, assuming I’m right, Mr. Tarantino was forced to trim an awful lot of material from the second half of the film and it hurt. But nothing hurt the movie so much as what he had Dr. King do toward the film’s end. I won’t spoil things too much, but suffice it to say that after all this time, I would have expected this professional bounty hunter to act in a far more professional manner than he did toward the film’s first major climax and not risk his life and the lives of both Django and Broomhilda because of his own stupid pride.
Or, to put it more succinctly for those who have seen the film: Really? All you had to do was shake the man’s hand! Shake it already!
Still, despite a weak and at times confusing closing half, I enjoyed enough of Django Unchained to recommend it, especially to fans of Mr. Tarantino’s unique mix of humor and violence.