Back when “Kill Bill Vol. 1” was being marketed, the big deal was that it was director Quentin Tarantino’s fourth movie and his first since “Jackie Brown.” Five years had passed between those films, but instead of Tarantino falling off the face of the planet, his fame increased.
Thankfully, the two-volume set of revenge movies were worth the wait. The wait between Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained” was about three years, yet it felt like a much shorter time had passed. Two releases in three years is prolific for Tarantino and we are the benefactors of his output.
That said, “Django Unchained” is another example of Tarantino’s evolution from a coffeehouse auteur to an epic and well-budgeted director. “Django Unchained” is a big film, like the spaghetti westerns that were its model. Sweeping landscapes juxtaposed with riveting close-ups once again show that Tarantino knows what works and why and is better at using those elements than just about anyone. And unlike his earliest efforts and the aforementioned “Basterds,” “Django Unchained” isn’t a multi-layered story with subplots aplenty. Rather, it is the story of Django, a slave-turned-bounty-hunter in search of his wife.
Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx plays Django and does a fine job with the transformation from slave to free man with a grudge. Bought by bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) to identify a few fugitives, Django comes into his own once Schultz grants him his freedom.
Foxx and Waltz have excellent chemistry playing men making the best of the situations they are in. Waltz takes the cold-blooded fiend he played in “Basterds” and adds a sense of humor and a streak of nobility to flesh out his character. Like his Oscar-winning performance as Col. Hans Landa, Waltz plays Schultz with a hair-trigger. One really never knows when he’s going to calmly gun someone down.
Tarantino continues his trend of finding washed out actors and giving them roles. In “Django Unchained” we are treated to 1980s heartthrob Don Johnson playing a slave-owner who gets upset with tactics employed by Schultz and Django. Do your best not to laugh at his ridiculous mustache. Johnson, as “Big Daddy,” leads an inept lynch mob with Jonah Hill as his sidekick. The scene is just one example of Tarantino playing something that isn’t really funny for laughs. “Big Daddy” is just one of many jokes about white folks in the film. Tarantino makes it work, mostly because he’s the one white director who can get away with the language he uses. He’s smart enough to set his film in the years just prior to the Civil War, so most of the language and usage feels appropriate. And while Samuel L. Jackson is the master of one particular word, but I’m not sure his favorite form of it was in common usage in the 1860s. I could be wrong; it’s only slightly distracting.
While the move to a primary character-driven plot is generally a good thing for Tarantino, “Django Unchained” does feel unfocused at times. As if Tarantino is trying to give us too much in one sitting. I imagine this is how “Kill Bill” would have turned out if it had been jammed into one film. The outcome is that we follow the character over a good length of time, but each individual adventure seems shorter than it should have been.
The good news is that strong performances (as slave owner Calvin Candie, Leonardo DiCaprio is perfectly slimy), interesting characters, superb cinematography, and the most gruesome mainstream gore effects since “Kill Bill” make “Django Unchained” a worthy entry in Tarantino’s filmography and a worthwhile trip to the cinema.
Now playing at Yakima Cinema and the Orion. Rated R.
• Backstage Pass is a new blog on www.yakima-herald.com covering pop culture from Hollywood to your backyard. T.J. Tranchell, a freelance journalist and Herald-Republic customer service clerk, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can visit his horror-themed blog at www.warning-signs.net.