Quentin Tarantino fails to do for slave owners what he did for Nazis in this, his long-awaited western (southern?) follow-up to the epic war comedy Inglourious Basterds. Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz returns to the Tarantino fold as Dr. King, a German dentist-cum-bounty-hunter hot on the trail of a pair of nefarious outlaws. Once again, the connivingly charismatic Waltz is well mannered to the point of achieving a near–Oliver Hardy sense of nirvana. He also offers a crash course in mentorship to uppity slave Jamie Foxx, eager to save his wife from ruthless plantation lord Leonardo DiCaprio.
For its first third, Django Unchained plays like an agreeable cross between Blazing Saddles and Mandingo. (There is a hilarious bit about proper eyehole placement in KKK cowls.) Once they reach Leo’s Candyland, however, the film becomes talky and set-bound, and the third act is little more than an excuse for bloodletting. The background is populated with enough familiar faces to cast three genre pictures, most notably Bruce Dern, who delivers a brief but stern lecture on the perils of breaking character. And, politically speaking, there’s more truth told here about money and its ability to buy miscegenation than anything on display in Lincoln.
Much has already been written about Tarantino’s use of the word “nigger” — a term that didn’t have quite the same pejorative impact at the time this film is set — but here is some more: it’s clear that Tarantino had two things in mind when he decided to pepper the film with such derisive dialogue. First, to pay homage to ’70s blaxploitation, and, second, to piss off Spike Lee to no end. On that second score, the film should be a resounding success. But what QT has to say about black action films and ’70s exploitation has already been summed up quite eloquently in Jackie Brown and Death Proof, respectively. Django is worth seeing but not a good enough romp to justify its 165-minute running time. With Kerry Washington, Don Johnson, Franco Nero, and Samuel L. Jackson as the spitting image of cotton-haired Woody Strode in Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.