Deep behind enemy lines, a group of men called the Basterds operate in Occupied France striking fear into the hearts of the uniformed officers of the Third Reich. Tales of Nazi’s being scalped, branded, or having their brains bashed out with a baseball bat by a group of men comprised largely of Jewish-American soldiers who love killing Nazis as much as their leader, Tennessean native, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt reprising his Early Grayce accent from Kalifornia). But what the Basterds have planned next, if all goes according to plan, will be written in the history books and possibly end the war. They have received word that a new German film, A Nations Pride, is being premiered in a Paris cinema and all the Nazi elite will be in attendance, including the head honcho himself, Adolf Hitler. To have all of these key figures in one location is too good to be true and presents the Basterds with an opportunity they have no intentions of passing up. With the help of the British government, and unknowingly the theater owner herself, the Basterds plan to attend this Nazi shin-ding and – God willing – blow them all the fuck up.
Quentin Tarantino is back with a WWII era film – but unlike the macaroni combat film the title comes from, or the Dirty Dozen style trailers you have seen by now, this no action film. Sure there are some scenes of action speckled throughout the film’s runtime, complimented by Tarantino’s brand of ultra-violence, but despite what the trailers and title allude to, the Basterds and their exploits are not really in the movie that much at all. But before I go on, let me state that I like Tarantino’s work. Call him a master at his craft, a hack, a thief and give me all the evidence you want to back any of it up and I will still state that for me personally, Pulp Fiction and Resevoir Dogs are two of my favorite films. If that makes you crinkle your nose in disgust, so be it, but I am only telling you this so that you know where I am coming from when I say that I thought Basterds was his third best film.
Bringing back his Kill Bill cinematographer, Robert Richardson, Tarantino gets a gorgeous looking picture accented by award-winning costume designer Anna Sheppard’s (Schindler’s List, The Pianist, and Band of Brothers) excellent wardrobe designs for the actors (and extras) no matter their character’s setting or class. Something else you can expect from a Tarantino film is an eclectic soundtrack and Basterds is no exception. With tracks from Ennio Morricone, Billy Preston and Charles Bernstein, I suspect Tarantino hears a song and then constructs a scene around it, my proof being his use of David Bowies’s theme song to Cat People in a WWII era film – and having it work perfectly.
No one who has watched a Tarantino film goes in to one of his creations not expecting scenes of long, snappy dialog and if you are go into this thinking otherwise (not helped by the action-laden promos) you will be sorely disappointed. There is a lot of talking across tables in Basterds. But for me, it was the best part of the film and while the overall movie may have ran on a bit longer than it needed too, I felt some scenes were too short and actually hated when they were over. This is due to some of Tarantino’s unforgettable characters and the absolutely phenomenal performances by the cast who portrayed them – including one of the best bad guys in a Tarantino film (hell, in a film period), the German Jew Hunter, Nazi Colonel Hans Landa. Played by Austrian actor Christoph Waltz (who rightfully walked away from Cannes with the Best Actor award for this performance), Landa is hired by Hitler to sniff out Jews in hiding and he is uncannily good at his job. He possesses the investigative skills of Sherlock Holmes, exudes the menace of Darth Vader, and displays the polite, rattlesnake personality of Die Hard’s Hans Gruber. I have to agree with other people who have written about this movie, if you see Basterds for anything, go see it for Waltz’s performance.
The rest of the cast also do a superb job, but a few standouts for me were French actress Melanie Laurent, whose shoulders a good portion of Basterds success rides. She plays Shosanna, a Jewish girl who escaped with her life after her family was murdered by Landa and crew. She fled to Paris, assumed a French identity and acquired the theater that the Germans want to use and the Basterds want to blow up. She has her own plans for the men responsible for the violent death of her entire family and is simply going to lock all the doors of the theater from the outside and then set it on fire with all of them in it. I also enjoyed August Diehl as suspicious Gestapo officer Sturmbannführer Dieter Hellstrom. The scene in a bar in which he grows suspicious of a Basterd disguised as a German officer was one of my favorites in the film mostly because of his performance. Diane Kruger plays the German actress Bridget von Hammersmark who is also spying for the Allies. I don’t know exactly what it is about her work in the film…it’s not that I was sitting there enthralled by what she was doing as much as she played Hammersmark EXACTLY the way I would think a popular 1940s Nazi Germany filmstar spy would be like.
And then there is the guy whose name puts asses in the seats. Brad Pitt. Well, it was a risky accent and I thought it worked due to Pitt’s comedic talent and the fact that he really seemed to be having a blast with the hillbilly Raine. The problem is that there just isn’t much depth to the Aldo Raine character as no time is spent exploring him – most of his screen-time being in the form of comic relief. But hell, at least he, unlike the soldiers under his command (Eli Roth, B.J. Novak, Omar Doom), had over 10 minutes of actual screen time. And this leads me to the only negative feeling I had. I really would have liked to see some of the Basterds fleshed out a bit more. I was ok with the film abandoning the group while we followed other characters, but seeing as they were who the film was named after, it would have been nice to have spent some time with them .
But for 150 minutes I watched a group of actors mostly talking to each other and aside from a scene with Mike Myers, I remained engaged, engrossed and never checked my watch wondering when the hell this would all be over. Because of the larger than life characters and their interactions with each other, I was left entertained by the overall picture and delighted (yes, I said delighted) with some of the outstanding performances. So go see this if you want to watch Tarantino re-write history in a controversial world where movie critics are the good guys, film stops wars and revenge – even the righteous kind – can leave good guys and bad guys nearly indistinguishable from each other.