“Django Unchained” ranges from being brilliant, controversial, chaotic, overly talky, mind-numbingly long and cartoonishly violent. Basically it’s Director/Writer Quentin Tarantino at his best and worse.
When he’s on, Tarantino’s southern western epic about a former slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), partnering with a German bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) is awesome. It’s original, lively and wickedly funny. The script is snappy and shot in that winking to the audience manner that only Tarantino can provide like the scene ripping a lynch-mob with their Ku Klux Klan style masks. But when he’s off — like in the film’s tedious middle act — “Django” is almost begging Tarantino to cut loose and get back to making the over-the-top cinematic experience we’ve come to expect from him.
After helping Schultz hunt down some outlaws, Django wants to find his wife, Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington, “Scandal”). Foxx and Waltz have an easy chemistry and I’d love to see them reunite on another project. I got a kick out of the fact that the enlightened guy who’s colorblind is named Dr. King.
Schultz offers to teach Django the ways of the bounty hunter and helps him track Broomhilda to Candyland — the massive, heavily-armed plantation under the control of the ruthless Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, “Inception”).
DiCaprio looks to be having a blast. It’s weird to consider a multiple-time Best Actor Oscar nominee a scene-stealer, but he does and I loved that he was willing to play the detestable villain instead of his more common heroic leading man roles.
“Django” also is a switch from Tarantino though not with the restraint of violence and language. There may be a 30-second gap where someone isn’t uttering the “n” word, which seems excessive. During the action scenes, blood gushes and spray like geysers. Instead of re-introducing audiences to a failed star (i.e. John Travolta, Pam Grier or David Carradine) Tarantino is working with some of the industry’s hot names. There’s 2004 Best Actor Oscar winner Foxx (“Ray”) 2010 Best Supporting Actor Waltz (“Inglourious Basterds”) and 2007 Best Actor Oscar nominee DiCaprio (“Blood Diamond”). Regular Tarantino-collaborator Samuel L. Jackson plays Candie’s faithful house servant, Stephen, and Don Johnson has a great cameo as Spencer “Big Daddy” Bennett.
Whether it’s the stacked cast or just his regular tendency to be overindulgent with dialogue, Tarantino crashes the film’s momentum once Candie meets Django and Schultz. Their scenes have a few great lines, but too much of their interaction — which comes close to the film’s midway point — feels like so much needless padding of the film’s 165-minute length. “Django” isn’t an epic like “The Lord of the Rings” or “Saving Private Ryan,” and needed stronger editing to keep the essential bits to the story and dump the rest. I doubt Tarantino left much on the cutting room floor and a tighter pace would have made this an easy recommendation.
The film’s soundtrack is as diverse as always for a Tarantino film with songs from hip-hop star Rick Ross, Italian composer Ennio Morricone, R&B crooner John Legend, folk rock singer Jim Croce and rap icon 2Pac. Like the film, some of the songs are perfectly timed while others don’t seem to fit the theme very well.
The opening act is great, you’ll need some caffeine to make it through the slow middle section, but the final act delivers an explosive payoff with one of my favorite quotable monologues to end a film in years. It’s the exact right note to end the film on and two weeks after I saw it, I’m still reciting lines from it proving if nothing else, it’s definitely a memorable film. “Django” isn’t Tarantino’s best film, but it’s not far behind “Pulp Fiction,” “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” and “Inglorious Basterds.”
Rating: 7 out of 10
Photo credit: Andrew Cooper/ The Weinstein Company