Inglourious Basterds

In the bunker of Quentin Tarantino's hypnotically fired-up imagination, World War II features Brad Pitt scalping Nazis, G.I. Jews with a flair for torture porn, the Führer at the movies, a film critic as a war hero, babes as the brains of the French and German Resistance, an S.S. Jew hunter who gets all the juiciest lines, bloody revenge by bat, bomb and dismemberment, and a blazing end for the Third Reich that ain't in history books.

If you're down with that, brush up on your German, French, Italian and hillbilly and head off to the spell-check-ignoring Inglourious Basterds, which should have been called How I Won the War, by Quentin Tarantino. It's not an ego trip. Tarantino's power punch comes from cinema itself. What's better than action, composition, editing, camera movement and a machine-gun spray of killer Tarantino dialogue if you want to go medieval on Nazi ass? Hollywood has been murdering language for years. But here's Tarantino with the oxygen blast of multi-lingual pulp poetry. Yes, there are subtitles. Live with it.

At 46, Tarantino still loves walking a tightrope minus the net. So it's easy to pick at his film's flaws: It sputters, bogs down in minutiae, talks itself into blind alleys and trips on its own ambition. Detractors say the 152-minute epic should be shorter, funnier, more fierce, less verbal, add battle scenes, yada-yada.

Sorry, haters. Tarantino does it his way. He divides the film into five chapters, the first ("Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France") nodding to Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns. Not a cowboy in sight, just the unbearable tension of watching Nazi colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) interrogate a dairy farmer about Jews hiding in the area. It's a game of cat and mouse, satanically orchestrated by Landa. Waltz is a wonder. His dazzling, diabolical performance blends seductive charm and monstrous malice (in four languages). Listen up, Oscar. Escaping is one Jewish girl, Shosanna Dreyfus (the haunting Mélanie Laurent), who flees to Paris and runs a theater that will figure in a plot to ensure no more springtimes for Hitler.

Next up are the Basterds, the Jewish commandos led by Pitt's Tennessee-born Lt. Aldo Raine. Pitt's portrayal skirts caricature, but he's clearly having a ball as "Aldo the Apache" demands 100 Nazi scalps from each of his dirty dozen, including the bat-wielding "Bear Jew" played by Hostel director Eli Roth. After sneaking into France dressed as civilians to take down the Reich, the Basterds team with British soldier Archie Hicox (the suave, sensational Michael Fassbender), a film critic assigned by a British general who doesn't look like Mike Myers but is. Adding spice is German movie star Bridget Von Hammersmark (achtung for Diane Kruger), now spying for the Allies. The two revenge plots converge at Shosanna's theater, which will premiere a propaganda film, Nation's Pride, and boast a red carpet walked by the Gestapo elite and the man himself, Herr Hitler (Martin Wuttke).

Those in a rush will object to the time allotted to the tavern sequence (a sort of mini-Reservoir Dogs) in which Bridget and the Basterds try to fake out the Nazis in a verbal duel that escalates into a shootout. But Tarantino gives his heart fully to this scene; it's hair-trigger suspense tied to something as small and telling as an accent.

In the spectacular climax at the premiere, which Landa oversees like a chessmaster who's finally met his match, Tarantino rewrites history with the only authority he has: his sovereignty as a filmmaker. Will Basterds polarize audiences? That's a given. But for anyone professing true movie love, there's no resisting it.

From The Archives Issue 134: May 10, 1973