Off To War, Brandishing Weapons And Words

"When will Quentin Tarantino grow up?"

Now, on the occasion of Inglourious Basterds — a peculiar World War II revenge epic that ranks among the least mature films of his career — it's a good time to reflect on why that question isn't worth asking.

Call it the Tarantino Conundrum: Ever since Reservoir Dogs shook Sundance to its core in 1992 — and Pulp Fiction did likewise to Cannes two years later — critics and cineastes have been grappling with an awkward reality: This once-in-a-generation filmmaking talent is no austere grand master, but a video-store savant with a predilection for film noir and martial-arts movies, '70s blaxploitation and spaghetti westerns, lurid drive-in trash and the early works of Jean-Luc Godard.

Yet somehow, with each new film, comes the expectation that Tarantino needs to evolve into a more "serious" filmmaker-- the one, for example, who was able to coax sweet romantic resonances out of '70s warhorses Pam Grier and Robert Forster in Jackie Brown — and move away from the delirious pop pastiche that has always defined him as an artist.

For those still tortured by the Tarantino Conundrum, Inglourious Basterds will no doubt provide endless aggravation; there's hardly a sober moment in this alternate-history cartoon about Jews having their revenge on the Nazis even as the Reich pursues its Final Solution. To the contrary, the film stands as a vulgar kiss-off to the august trappings of World War II movies in general, and for that alone it's a refreshing and sometimes empowering wish-fulfillment fantasy. Leave the real history to be fussed over in the halls of academe; Tarantino's version more closely approximates one that might be invented by 13-year-olds playing with action figures in the backyard.

That is, if the action figures were given to talking. And talking. And talking.

Clocking in at 25 minutes, the film's bravura opening scene consists mainly of a long conversation between a strapping farmer and Col. Hans Landa, a fearsome Nazi officer tasked with ferreting out Jewish families hiding in occupied France. An unforgettable Christoph Waltz plays Landa as a gentleman sadist of the Tarantino school, a man who luxuriates in language and in slowly turning the screws; he gets through two full glasses of milk as he sits, chatting with that farmer, before finally addressing the Jews tucked away under the floorboards.

Tarantino maintains a simmering tension between these two outsized men, as if they were adversaries in a Sergio Leone movie — but too much of Inglourious Basterds plays out the same way, in long, dialogue-heavy scenes that ultimately rob the film of pulp momentum. The "basterds" of the title, for example, are men of action who rarely get a chance to act, at least not before a colorful preamble by their leader, Tennessee-born Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, with a hilariously vigorous drawl).

Raine's motley group of Jewish-American irregulars is free to roam the countryside, literally collecting the scalps of Nazi brass for Raine's edification. Their plan to knock off Hitler, Goebbels and the gang at a movie premiere dovetails with that of the theater's proprietor (Melanie Laurent), a Jew who barely escaped Landa's clutches when he executed her family years before.

Having two separate assassination plots that magically coalesce is acceptably implausible — verisimilitude ain't Tarantino's bag, after all — but it also speaks to how diffuse and slack Inglourious Basterds becomes at times, which is something that could never be said of the "men-on-a-mission" movies to which the director is paying homage.

Worse is that, although it's loaded with small marvels — Waltz and Pitt's delicious turns of phrase, a startling nod to The Wizard Of Oz, an anachronistic David Bowie cue from the Cat People soundtrack — the film on the whole feels unusually labored and conventional by Tarantino standards. Reducing World War II to juvenilia isn't the problem; the problem is that juvenilia needs to pop.

Scott Tobias is the film editor of The A.V. Club.
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