‘Glourious’ excess in WWII fable
> Pitt, Myers enlist, but the real star is director Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” may be the most inventive, outrageous film of the year, a Hebrew revenge fantasy in which Jewish commandos bring WWII to an abrupt end by targeting the German high command.
That isn’t the way the history books tell it, but after seeing this overripe wonder you may prefer Tarantino’s take.
Though it features among its players Brad Pitt and several excellent European actors, “Inglourious” hasn’t any real stars.
Or rather, the only star that matters is the man behind the camera.
From the very first frame with its crashing spaghetti Western music and opening words — “Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France ...” — this movie is about a filmmaker strutting his stuff.
Tarantino daringly sets the tone from the outset with a 20-minute scene at a kitchen table between slickly affable SS officer Hans Landa (a scene-stealing Christoph Waltz) and a nervous French farmer. Like a cat toying with a quivering rodent, Landa politely asks for a glass of milk, makes small talk, lights his pipe and eases into the reason for his visit — to track down a local Jewish family that has eluded capture.
“Inglourious Basterds” is being sold as an action film (and there is some truly horrifying yet weirdly comical violence here ... remember “Pulp Fiction”?), but most of it is like this opening sequence — long conversations that unfold in real time.
In the hands of almost any other filmmaker we’d grow weary of all this talk, talk, talk. But Tarantino fashions each encounter like a one-act play filled with subtle shifts in emphasis and packed with ever-changing dynamics. Even when the topic is benign, something sinister always lurks just below the surface.
The misspelled “basterds” of the title are a unit of Jewish GIs recruited by taskmaster Aldo Raine (Pitt) for a special job. They’ll parachute into Europe and terrorize the enemy by killing without mercy and scalping the dead.
Raine hates the “NAT-zees” and proclaims: “We will be cruel to the Germans.”
And cruel they are, becoming the bogeymen of every schnitzel-eater’s nightmares.
Tarantino frequently seems to be testing how much he can get away with. The answer: a lot.
Pitt plays Raine as a caricature, a fast-talking, slow-chewing, unsophisticated Tennessee hillbilly. Likewise, Martin Wuttke is all sputtering and overacting as the Fuhrer himself.
Odder still, there’s virtually no character development. The various personalities don’t grow or change — they’re as frozen as flies in amber.
Yet it works. The scenery chewing is offset by several solidly grounded performances. The incongruous musical choices and unusual casting — Mike Myers in a straight role as a stuffy British intelligence officer — are countered by the realism of many of the scenes. For every excess, an element grounds the story in the plausible.
To the extent it has a plot, the film centers on the efforts of the Basterds to wipe out the entire Nazi hierarchy at the premiere of a new propaganda film at a Paris cinema. Their plan is to infiltrate as members of an Italian film making crew with explosives beneath their tuxedos. In other words, Jewish suicide bombers.
Unbeknown to the Americans, the cinema’s blond owner (Melanie Laurent), a Jew passing as gentile, is working on her own plot and has filled the building with highly flammable reels of aging celluloid.
So effective is Tarantino’s high-wire act that 21/ hours fly by. There may be little that’s profound or meaningful in “Inglourious Basterds,” but as pure entertainment it has few peers.
American Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) whips Jewish GIs into shape to parachute into France to terrorize the ‘‘NAT-zees’’ — and oddly entertain everyone else.