“Django Unchained,” director/writer Quentin Tarantino’s wantonly violent, slave-era revenge fantasy, has about as much to do with the holiday spirit as a grinch with a shotgun.
But opening the film on Christmas Day plays right into Tarantino’s sense of pop-culture irony and mainstream subversion. That he’s also juggling such issues as race and retribution with all the finesse and wisdom of a child tossing hand grenades only makes the whole thing even more combustible and controversial.
Too bad there isn’t a better movie to go along with all the flamethrowing bravado.
A mash-up of the 1966 Italian spaghetti western “Django” and early ’70s blaxploitation westerns, “Django Unchained” offers Tarantino yet another chance to show off his “Pulp Fiction”-style twist on history. While it worked with his smart-aleck revisionist take on WWII in “Inglourious Basterds,” it just comes across as contrived and excessive here.
Jamie Foxx is Django, whom we meet when he’s being transported with other slaves. He’s rescued by a somewhat abolitionist-minded German bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who schools him in the ways of tracking down and killing men. Django becomes the Robin to his Batman, but he wants one thing in return: to go back to the Mississippi plantation where his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), is still enslaved and free her.
Of course, that’s what they set out to do and that’s where they cross paths with owner Calvin Candie, played charmingly by Leonardo DiCaprio, oozing a smooth, antebellum charisma. In fact, the movie’s best scene — echoing the suspense of the opening moments of “Basterds” — hinges on whether Candie will fall for the ruse Schultz and Django have come up with to try and free Broomhilda from his cruel clutches.
But that kind of tension is lacking in the rest of the film, which not only squanders Tarantino’s considerable talents but those of Washington (who doesn’t have much to do but look frightened), the underrated Walton Goggins (“Justified,” “The Shield”) as a thick-headed cowboy, and especially Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, a smart-mouthed obedient house slave who tangles with Django, getting some of the best lines in the process.
It’s possible to argue that the shuffling character is a commentary on Hollywood’s history of black minstrelsy, and is a counterpoint to Django’s growing independence, but with Tarantino pulling the strings it just comes across as cartoonish and a vehicle for cheap laughs.
Django’s dialog is perfunctory, with little of the savvy back-and-forth of other Tarantino movies (namely “Pulp Fiction”), and the n-word is thrown around like a ball at a dog park. It just seems to be there to raise hackles. (Or to pick another fight with Spike Lee, who savaged him for using the word constantly in the superior 1997 film, “Jackie Brown”). While the violence is plentiful, it’s neither stylistically impressive (as in the “Kill Bill” movies) nor gripping (“Reservoir Dogs”). It’s just numbing.
Granted, Tarantino, as part of his grindhouse/drive-in-movie aesthetic, is riffing off the language and the violence of those late ’60s/early ’70s films. But what Tarantino seems to forget is that the original Django clocked in at a crisp 87 minutes. At a whopping two hours and 45 minutes, “Django Unchained” belabors its points to blood-drenched exhaustion.
On the plus side, Waltz is solid as always and Foxx brings a sense of energy to his role. And it’s cool that Tarantino has the freedom to make a movie about anything he wants. How many other movies about slavery are at the multiplex these days?
But it’s not enough to save “Django Unchained,” a film forever imprisoned by Tarantino’s more glorious past.