The World War II flick “Inglourious Basterds” is clearly a product of Quentin Tarantino. His moviemaking DNA is evident throughout. Shocking moments of graphic violence? Check. Razor sharp dialogue? Check. Sly homages to notable films? Check. A divergent plot that never quite goes where you expect? Check. Most of his hallmark touches are front and center. That being said, it’s not the war movie one might expect him to make. After all, this is the director who ramped up the gore and violence to cartoonish levels in the first half of his revenge picture “Kill Bill.” Certainly the Nazis are deserving of the same treatment.
Tarantino disagrees and as usual, he tells the story his own way. There are more extended conversations than explosions or relentless machine-gunning of foes (though the latter two are certainly present). “Inglourious Basterds” defies all conventions, both those of movies and of history. Right from the beginning, this film clearly exists in a world of its own. Like any good fable, it even begins with “Once upon a time,” though in this case, it’s followed by the not-as-traditional “in Nazi-occupied France.”
The titular characters are a team of Jewish-American commandos recruited by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, in fine form) to go behind enemy lines. Once there they wreak havoc and sow terror among the German troops with their brutal tactics, including scalping and mutilating their fallen enemies. The group is eventually assigned a mission to attack the premiere of a propaganda film which will be attended by members of the Nazi high command.
The Basterds aren’t the only ones interested in spoiling things for the Germans. The movie theater’s owner, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), had her family gunned down by soldiers under the command of SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christop Waltz). She’s understandably determined to add her own fireworks to the party. The movie tells the tale of the two parallel assassination plots as they wind towards their fiery conclusion.
Despite the seemingly action-packed plot, Tarantino takes things slow. He’s determined to wring every ounce of suspense out of his extended scenes of dialogue. Characters sit on opposite sides of tables, eating and smoking while verbally sparring for minutes on end. It certainly changes the pacing of things, but thanks to some exceptional performances by his actors, Waltz in particular, it works. While some scenes drag on a little too long, for the most part, conversations drip with menace and dark, unstated intentions. By the time weapons are drawn, tensions have been raised to a fever pitch.
In a two-and-a-half hour movie with such abundant dialogue one would expect a sizable amount of time to be devoted to developing and defining the characters. Unfortunately, that’s not the case here. The movie’s most glaring weaknesses is doubly obvious because it’s usually a strong point in Q.T.’s work. In previous films, whether it’s through a discussion of European condiment preferences or deconstruction of Madonna songs, Tarantino has always managed to imbue his characters with a strong sense of vibrancy and depth. This is sorely lacking here. We’re provided with almost zero background for most of the Basterds. We’re left with the distinct feeling that Tarantino believes that in war movies, as in war itself, the mission is far more important than the men who accomplish it.