Quentin Tarantino has a giant monkey on his back called Pulp Fiction. Pulp was game-changing film-making, and the ripples created by that film had become so mainstream that people forgot just how great the movie was when it was released. It was a game-changer. No director working today has as unique a stamp as Tarantino. Yet despite that significant accomplishment, every subsequent release of his unfairly holds the hope that maybe, just maybe, this one will be better than the number five film of all time (according to IMDB). Well, folks, sorry to disappoint you. Despite numerous cinephile-worthy flourishes, Basterds doesn’t knock Pulp off its pedestal. It is one entertaining film that is one of Tarantino’s best.
All the Tarantino signature touches are here. The quirky soundtrack, slow-burn suspense, graphic violence, unexpected humor, camera acrobatics, referential dialogue requiring an understanding of German Film history (this time), and at least one Oscar-worthy performance in the character of “Jew hunter” Col. Hans Landa (played by multi-lingual German TV actor Christoph Waltz). Waltz simultaneously walks the line between terrifying and absurd – you can’t help but be mesmerized by him. This is a significant role and an even better characterization. Nominate him, please!
The plot? Not important. Suffice it to say part of it involves a Jewish Dirty Dozen on a mission to collect as many Nazi scalps as possible, who happen to intersect with a plan to murder all the Nazi brass (including Hitler and Goebbels) in a cinema in occupied France owned by a fugitive Jew who fled from Landa -who was drinking the glass as mentioned above of milk. This all leads to arson and an epic gun battle where Hitler satisfyingly gets mowed down by a machine gun by one of the basterds. None of this matters because Tarantino excels at providing memorable scenes, each with his indelible stamp of nuance. The plot is secondary.
The opening scene, an homage to the spaghetti Westerns of Leone, is a masterful piece of suspense that simultaneously introduces the story and characters. Few writers could craft such a scene because the “reveal” involves a camera trick only a seasoned director would be thinking about. This is the most stunning scenery ever produced involving a glass of milk.
Equally stunning is another surprising Brad Pitt performance at Lt. Aldo Raine, the leader of the basterds. Pitt again shows to be an actor with formidable comedic chops making us laugh at all the wrong times and simultaneously sucking us into the plot and character. His entrance into the film is one of the great ones.
The movie is too long, some of the dialogue is too obscure, and there are some missed opportunities (particularly with Hitler), but who cares? For Tarantino, it’s all about providing entertainment; if you love movies, there is plenty to love here.