Here's a movie I totally expected to hate. From the trailer I'd seen in theaters it seemed to be about a group of Jewish American soldiers lead by a comically accented Brad Pitt who terrorized Nazi's through sheer brutality in occupied France. Much as I can understand the potential visceral thrill a Nazi getting hit in the head with a baseball bat could engender I was a little less than enchanted with the prospect of 2.5 hours of bloody torture porn. Regardless of the deservedness of members of self titled "the master race." I'll also admit that I'm not a complete Tarantino fanboy. Liked some of the early work was less especially excited by the Kill Bill films. But the relentlessly positive reviews drew me to the theater.
But as it turns out there's a reason the theater was pretty packed for an early morning film. This is a good movie. Not to mention not at all what I expected from the trailer. Yes, it does in feature a group of Jewish American soldiers dropped into France to seed fear in the German ranks. And yes, as hinted at in the trailers it is a bit of a revenge fantasy. But that's not all it's about. It's a richer movie than that I'd expected and it completely pulled me in from the first scene and the two and a half hours seemed to fly by.
This is a revisionist history of WW-II that ends differently than the real one. In this one the conclusion is driven quite literally through the power of film. The Nazi theme is played with in a far lighter way than most modern films would dare to. But for some reason it didn't bother me - perhaps because the framework he sets up uses them as stock movie villians - but the reaction of the characters is attuned to the true evil they represent. Somehow Tarantino seems to balance the talking, the violence, the themes and an actual story arc in just the right way. At the moment I think I'd have to say that for me Inglorious Basterds is the best of his films (not counting his bizarrely entertaining appearance in Sukiyaki Western Django - the only part of that film I felt I got). Sins against the movie title spelling police notwithstanding.
For me most of the pleasure was watching the film unfold without really knowing where it was going. So I'm just going to give a sense of the broad strokes so as not to take away from the viewing experience unnecessarily.
Structurally the film is divided into 5 chapters - each clearly demarcated and occurring in roughly chronological order (this is not Pulp Fiction). The first ("Once Upon a Time") is set at a farmhouse in the French countryside. A Nazi contingent comes knocking looking for Jewish farmers hiding from them. The father of the family meets (along with us) a key actor in the film - the Nazi colonel played by (scene stealer) Christoph Waltz. He seems to be modeled on a great (albeit evil) detective, able to suck people into thinking their safe while getting exactly what he needs from them. You hate him, but still are stunned to the point of being impressed by what he's able to do with his words. His seemingly quiet conversation with the farmer about the family hiding directly below them ratchets up the tension dramatically both verbally and visually as the scene builds. I won't speak to the conclusion except to say that at least one of the family members in hiding gets away and we meet her again later in the film playing a pivotal role.
Things meander along throughout the rest of the film converging towards the picture's main set piece. A film premier in France at which all of the key leadership of the German government will be in attendance. Can "The Basterds" or any one of the other players that pop up throughout the film take advantage of the situation to deliver a single decapitating blow against the Third Reich. Based on nothing in reality as far as I know this isn't hamstrung by "facts" in the way that Tom Cruise's recent attempt at a similar storyline (though in an oh so different) way.
There is definitely some gore along the way - it's rated R for a reason. But there's also some great dialog, strong performances (Pitt's comic leaning on screen persona nicely blunts the edges in some tough material), well chosen music and great visuals. A lot has been said in other reviews that Tarantino demonstrates throughout this picture his love of all things cinema - from the themes to various nods to earlier work throughout. All true and it may be a cinephile's delight. But more importantly it's a way to spend at least a few hours in air conditioned comfort in a way that rewards a lot of senses.
Just remember, it's a dark room - no one will see you turn away or cover your eyes when the Basterds scalp someone. So don't let that keep you from it.