As Mickey Rourke, Guinness and anyone who spent countless hours as a child setting up Mouse Trap will heartily attest, good things come to those who wait.
So when you hear that one of modern cinema’s most unique, creative and visionary directors has had 10 years to refine, sculpt and rewrite an entirely personal and beloved script, there’s reason to get excited… right?
While Inglourious Basterds is far from an over-indulgent travesty, you can’t help but feeling that Tarantino’s constant assertions that this is his ‘masterpiece’ are as hyperbolic as the movie itself, which suffers from a distant example of whimsical style over substance.
It’s mid World War II and a young Jewish woman, Soshanna Drefuss (an entrancingly gorgeous Melanie Laurent) escapes a family-wide cull by menacing parody Col. Landa (an excellent Christoph Waltz), while a group of dedicated Nazi hunters – the titular Basterds – proceed to scour Europe beating and scalping Hitler’s army with ‘yippee-kay-ay’ sociopathic glee.
When Soshanna establishes a life for herself in occupied France, fate swiftly puts her on a collision course with the Basterds, her family’s killer and a potentially war-ending date with the head of the German Reich.
With the tense and gripping opening scene out of the way (a superbly crafted tete a tete between a peaceful French farmer and the erudite, manipulative Landa), the scene-stealing arrival of the cartoonish Basterds sets an unfaltering tone that culminates with an uproarious finale, and makes it clear that Tarantino is indulging in fantastical fiction of the highest order.
Rest assured, the oblique references to obscure wartime cinematographers and ironic genre conventions are still here, but this is very much Tarantino at his playful best. Which in and of itself is fine, but then attempting to couple that with the heavy drama of the period is another matter.
The majority of Tarantino’s classics have been defined by a tempered balance between excellent dialogue and plotting, and his trademark tongue-in-cheek humour.
Yet with Basterds, there’s a cold detachment apparent in the contrasting tones on show. One minute there’s flashy pop-art bursts of manically vibrant colour and the next there’s somber, tension-ratcheting ‘talky’ scenes. The balance seems noticeably off, and for every dialogue heavy back and forth that outstays its welcome, there’s a flippant display of baffoonery or needless slapstick just around the corner.
As such, the audience is left with a jarring, aloof sensation that leaves you wondering exactly what you’re supposed to be feeling either towards the characters or the movie as a whole.
Is it a comedy? A pointed historical satire? A war-time ‘tally-ho’ romp? Or is it just the result of a talented auteur who has gained enough creative freedom and trust from the studio to run wild with the excesses of his own devices?
For a story that embodies the pinnacle of celluloid and historical wish fulfillment, even its deliriously manic, presumed fist-in-the-air, crowd-wooping moment of victory is devoid of any real emotional connection or – bafflingly – sense of satisfaction.
This is by no means a terrible film. It has all the trademark and justifiably lauded Tarantino flourishes. Pitt hams it up in comical fashion as the redneck squad leader Lt. Aldo Raine, Christoph Waltz dominates each scene he’s in with fabulously surreal conviction and as per usual, Tarantino’s female leads give strong, captivating and layered performances.
It’s just that at a whopping 2.5 hours, you can’t help but feel that it could have been either trimmed down (or if the miniseries’ rumours are to be believed, considerably expanded) into something truly amazing.