Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Django Unchained

I’m a big fan of Quentin Tarantino. My fandom began in 1992 with his first feature film, Reservoir Dogs, and solidified two years later with the now classic Pulp Fiction. I was also a fan of 1997’s underrated Jackie Brown, but I really fell in love with Kill Bill—especially Volume 2 (the performances by Michael Madsen and David Carradine are among my favorite in modern cinema). Needless to say, I was excited for Tarantino’s newest project in three years—Django Unchained.

Not only was I excited because it was a Tarantino movie, I was also anxious to see Christoph Waltz back in action. If you recall, he played the vile Col. Hans Landa in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, which earned the 56-year-old German actor a well-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. It was another great casting decision by Tarantino and instantly vaulted Waltz into superstardom. Furthermore, A-listers Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington and Samuel L. Jackson joined him in the film.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, here’s a description of the spaghetti western as described by BenLobel on IMDb: “Former dentist, Dr. King Schultz, buys the freedom of a slave, Django, and trains him with the intent to make him his deputy bounty hunter. Instead, he is led to the site of Django's wife who is under the hands of Calvin Candie, a ruthless plantation owner.”

The aforementioned Waltz played Dr. King Schultz, and once again he did an amazing job. I don’t know what it is, but Waltz manages to captivate every second he’s on screen. This was especially true as a villain in Inglourious Basterds, but Django Unchained also proved he made a good protagonist (with his charm, wit and intelligence, Dr. King Schultz was basically a good version of Hans Landa).

Playing his counterpart and the title character was Foxx, who accepted after Will Smith, who Tarantino had in mind when writing the film, declined the role. I have no reservations saying I’m a bigger fan of Smith than Foxx, but to be honest the latter did a great job. I tend to think Foxx hogs the spotlight, but that wasn't the case at all here. That allowed the other characters to shine through and strengthen the film as a whole. Interestingly, Foxx used his own horse, Cheetah, in the film, which I heard (him being as experienced with riding) helped him earn the role.

While both Foxx and Waltz made a fun duo, they didn’t strike me as iconic, which many past Tarantino characters have. If there was one in this film, it would have went to either DiCaprio, who was originally going to play the aforementioned Landa in Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino decided a native German speaker was best), as plantation owner Calvin Candie or his head slave, Stephen, played by Jackson. This was the first time in nearly 15 years the former wasn’t billed as the headliner in a movie, and it was refreshing to see the talented actor play a menacing villain in a supporting role. It was a nontraditional part for the star, and he did an amazing job. He was sick, demented and a gamesman, but pulled it all off under the guise of charm, tradition and etiquette. He was friendly scary if that makes sense.

Carsen Nachreiner was the buddy for Django Unchained.
As far as Jackson was concerned, he was scandalous and treacherous as Candie’s head slave, who was the real slave driver on the plantation. It was a prime example of the dog of the king being the king of the dogs. Jackson, who has appeared in five Tarantino films, really owned the role as the cantankerous mastermind and he was a pleasure to watch.

Rounding out the performances, I was glad to see the talented Walter Groggins in the film as Ace Woody, which was originally Kevin Costner’s role until he had to drop out, but Groggins was underused in my opinion (interestingly, others previously linked to a role that didn’t pan out included Lady Gaga, Kurt Russell, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Sacha Baron Cohen).

Regarding the story, it was a fairly typical western theme; in fact, it was inspired by the 1960s spaghetti western Django starring Franco Nero (Tarantino gave Nero a cameo as a bar patron—the one that says, “I know,” when Django explains, "The 'D' is silent"). Tarantino gave his own spin on it, and it flowed relatively well. By that I mean the plot naturally progressed while the characters were developed. Meanwhile, tangents were kept to a minimum and the underlying love story/fairy tale aspect was kept in check.

I don’t really have any qualms with the film, other than the fact that it went on a little long; in fact, there was one logical stopping point where I assumed the movie would end. It opted to go a bit further, which was fine, but the missed opportunity to end it smoothly did not go unnoticed. Other than that, I think the film was slightly pigeonholed by the various delays, script changes and actor turnover, which took a bit of shine off the film as a whole.

Django Unchained wasn’t Tarantino’s best, but it fit nicely into his portfolio. The characters, while not iconic, were well developed and entertaining, which was the strength of the film—at least for me. Of course there was the trademark Tarantino over-the-top blood and gore, which gave a distinct feel to what could have been a mundane western, or “southern” as Tarantino called it since it’s set in America’s south. If you like Tarantino, you should like Django Unchained. I left satisfied and feel it's worth the price of admission.

Buddies Forever Movie Club Rating: 84%

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