After the release of Grindhouse, Quentin Tarantino was looking to change things around and turn things up. The resulting sixth picture from the master director was Inglorious Basterds, a full-on, gung-ho war movie that completely flipped the genre on its head and made for one hell of a compelling watch.
In Nazi-occupied France during World War II, a plan to assassinate Nazi leaders by a group of Jewish U.S. soldiers coincides with a theatre owner’s vengeful plans for the same.
From the very outset, Inglorious Basterds feels like something different in the long-running list of Tarantino’s credits. This film feels like a brand new direction for the filmmaker. It’s glossier, crisper and is more grown-up than his previous films. Part of this could be that Tarantino took his time in developing the film spending more than 10 years on writing the script and all this thought and care shows through in the finished product. Inglorious Basterds is Tarantino completely dialled in and focused, with a narrative structure that goes back to the director’s work on Pulp Fiction. Plus plenty of surprises thrown in for good measure. It’s as if Tarantino reinvented himself with Inglorious Basterds, and thanks to its tight pacing, and superb visuals, courtesy of cinematographer Robert Richardson, it’s a film that grabs the viewer and draws them into every single frame.
With a production of such monumental size, Tarantino needed an actor who could carry the film with that classic leading man quality and he found his guy in Hollywood superstar Brad Pitt. Starring as the gung-ho Lt. Aldo Raine, a backwoods tough guy who decides to go native on the Nazi’s in France with his own breed of Apache justice, Pitt holds the centre of the screen and has a ball doing it. Pitt’s balance of dramatic talent and dashing movie star appeal comes together with his performance as Raine, and his crazy battlefield tactics definitely raise a few eyebrows. He’s the anti-hero who gets shit done and when you’ve got a war to win that’s exactly the kind of guy you want on your side.
Facing off against Aldo is Tarantino’s uber-villain. The meanest, nastiest, most scandalous villain he’s ever created. Colonel Hans Landa of the SS. Nicknamed ‘The Jew Hunter’. And he was played to villainous perfection, in a performance that is now a part of movie legend, by the one and only Christoph Waltz. Described by Tarantino as ‘the guy who gave me my movie’, Waltz is superb as Landa and completely steals the entire movie. Whenever you see him you can’t take your eyes off of him and make no mistake this charismatic character is very, very scary. Part of what makes Landa so scary is that he doesn’t see himself as any kind of villain. He’s just a guy doing his job and he happens to be very good at it. And what’s more, he’s proud of how good he is at it. There’s not a single moment where Waltz is not excellent as Landa and he certainly leaves the audience on edge.
Such an epic movie like Inglorious Basterds demands an equally epic supporting cast and Tarantino rustles together a terrific collection of collaborators. First up there are the Basterds, Aldo’s rag-tag group of Jewish-American Nazi scalp hunters and they certainly cause a lot of chaos. Filling out the ranks is Eli Roth as Sgt. Donny Donowitz aka ‘The Bear Jew’, a super-jacked soldier with a serious grudge and an even bigger baseball bat. And he likes to hit home runs. Then there’s Til Schweiger as the psychotically unhinged Hugo Stiglitz, a former German soldier who killed 13 Gestapo officers and who has deserted to the Basterds cause. Both Roth and Schweiger add something to the cause and provide great stand-out performances.
Coming into contact with The Basterds mission is the chipper Lt. Archie Hicox played with great upper class delivery by Michael Fassbender. A Royal Marine and former film critic, Hicox is drafted into a top-secret plan to destroy the German High Command, and his interaction with the Basterds leads to plenty of interesting moments. Fassbender’s Hicox is very much the realist of the group and is always trying to keep everything on track. Alongside Fassbender, and bringing plenty of style to the picture is Diane Kruger as Bridget von Hammersmark, a German actress and film star who is in league with the Allies. Kruger gets a great role in the film, and she’s a terrific study of Tarantino’s dialogue and her delivery, flair and feet light up the screen.
But as for a wildcard, well that position is snapped up by Mélanie Laurent as Shosanna Dreyfus, a young Jewish woman running a cinema in Paris who has her own ideas on how to barbecue the Nazis. With a performance that is delivered entirely in French, the young actress holds her own here as Shosanna. This girl also has a history with Waltz’ Landa and their scenes together inspire a sense of skin-crawling terror that leaves Shosanna shaking with fear. Of all of the characters in the film, Shosanna is definitely the outlier and as an audience member its fun to watch her performance as she brings something different to the film and spices things up. It’s fun to watch this young Jewish girl with an axe to grind work her way up the Nazi chain of command and Laurent delivers plenty of surprises with her performance.
As a cinematic experience Inglorious Basterds stands out in Tarantino’s filmography. He was going for broke here and wanting to prove he could still command an audience. And, well, he succeeds in crafting a picture that stood out from his already existing filmography, but which also completely flipped the idea of the war movie on its head. Tarantino describes Inglorious Basterds as his “men on a mission movie” and he captures a unique portrait of WWII. It’s a vision of the Second World War that is loud, bold and completely original. All of the elements were working in his favour here, and each scene is more entertaining than the last.
Inglorious Basterds is also a film that is a complete love letter to the art of cinema. From the outset, Tarantino makes the very fabric of cinema integral to the plot of the script with the film’s third act taking place within the confines of a Parisian cinema. And it’s in this location that Tarantino gets going with one of the cinema art forms craziest ever scenes committed to celluloid. Everything from the make-up of the cinema to quirky facts about film stock and film equipment to long monologues referencing obscure cinema works of the 1930s and 1940s makes it into Inglorious Basterds, and it absolutely makes things more interesting. This obsessive passion for cinema elevates Inglorious Basterds as a cinema experience and gives it that extra spark that only Tarantino is capable of.
From beginning to end Inglorious Basterds is one crazy ride and Tarantino gave everything of himself as an artist to this film. Packed together with a terrific story, great characters and one of the most satisfying endings ever shot, this is one Tarantino movie that truly delivers on the promise of its director.