Most of us come to a Tarantino movie expecting the usual trademark elements: visceral, somewhat gratuitous violence; complicated, witty, scummy, razor-sharp dialogue; and complex, interweaving storyline featuring interestingly off-colour characters. So how does that blend against a backdrop as often-used as WW2/Nazi-occupied France? Well, let’s just say he makes it work (for the most part). Though their nickname is used as the movie’s title, this platoon of Jewish-American guerrilla Nazi-killers is not the only story. We also follow a Jewish-French girl who survived the execution of her family only to find herself (and her Paris movie theatre) at the heart of a revenge plot against the Nazis a few years later.
A story like that is incredibly apt for Tarantino to maneuver the various characters into crossing paths at the grand finale. However, it’s the Basterds and their cartoonishness that does not fit well with a serious subject such as the Nazis and their oppression of Jews. Sure, Mel Brooks and many others have made the Nazis objects of ridicule, but Tarantino doesn’t exactly do that. In fact, his main Nazi character is a very intelligent, well-mannered, almost charming man (it doesn’t hurt that Christoph Waltz gave an amazing, Cannes-actor-prize-winning, polyglot performance as the conniving but crafty Col. Hans Landa) who is facing off against a group of boorish Americans who are essentially thugs. If this movie had been set in high school rather than WW2, the Basterds would probably be giving wedgies and swirlies rather than shooting and scalping.
The worst offender is Brad Pitt’s character, team commander Aldo Raine. We know Pitt can do better, so I believe any blame for his character has to fall at Tarantino’s feet. Everything from his strap-on Tennessee accent, his “cheap disguise” moustache, to his oddly-contrived smirk make him seem ridiculously comical. (They make me long for the relative realism of his CGI-rendered 80-year-old body from Benjamin Button.) The only reason we take him at all seriously is because he leads a team of deadly-violent men. (I’m so put off by this theme of brutality over brains.) Is this supposed to be ironic? Inasmuch as the entire movie seems to be ironic, I guess so, but otherwise I don’t see how. It also comes back to the question of why this story is set in the Nazi/WW2 context anyway? It’s obviously not a true story. While I can see the marketing value of having the Inglourious Basterds take centre stage (when they’re on), by not individualizing the Basterds more, Tarantino missed an opportunity to create a few more unique characters as only he can. I preferred the story of Shoshanna the Jewish-French cinema owner much more. Her plot had its unbelievable moments as well, but it did balance-off the Basterds’ plot line.
I give Tarantino props for trying to squeeze a Nazi story into his unique cookie cutter. However, there are just some parts that don’t quite gel. The broadness of the characters (especially the Basterds) just doesn’t compensate for (in fact it kind of exacerbates) those short-comings. Far from a failure, Inglourious Basterds is also far from perfect (at least compared to some of his previous hits — see Kill Bill vols. 1 and 2). (3.5 out of 5)