I’ll be honest: I wasn’t entirely happy with seeing Quentin Tarantino‘s World War 2 fable Inglourious Basterds at the top of the poll when I decided to do my next rewatch. First and only time I watched it was over two years ago when it was still new to most, and I know I really liked it at the time (otherwise, it’s unlikely the DVD would have ended up in my collection). I just couldn’t for the life of me remember why. Wasn’t it just a whole bunch of drawn-out scenes with the usual Tarantino-type babbling? I was sure I was going to be bored and underwhelmed having to sit through its 2.5 hour running time.
But once I sat down, those worries were dispelled quickly as the opening scene unfolded before my eyes. As SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) interrogates a dairy farmer (Denis Menochet) about the whereabouts of a missing Jewish family in the area, not only is the plot of the film kicked off but some of its recurring traits are also established. For instance, the importance of reputation (“But you are aware of what they call me? What are you aware of?”). Or, more notably, Tarantino’s teriffic sense of how to establish and extend tension. The first scene is but the first of many where you wonder just how much these characters know, what they suspect, if they can get away with it and so on. It is in this suspense that the movie’s real strength lies.
Inglourious Basterds is on the surface a fairly straight-forward genre exercise for Tarantino. Taking inspiration from films like The Dirty Dozen and The Guns of Navarone, roughly half the plot concerns the titular Basterds, a group of Jewish American soldiers who wage a guerilla war to strike fear into the hearts of the Nazis. Led by Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), they eventually find themselves involved in a plot to set off bombs in a Paris theater packed with high-ranking Germans (including, perhaps, Hitler himself), thus striking a crushing blow against the enemy. But wait! Said theater is owned by one Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), a young woman whose entire family was killed by the Nazis. She’s out for revenge and independently hatches her own plan to burn down the cinema during the big gala event. So the two plot threads of the Basterds and Shosanna are poised to collide, it seems. And always a looming threat is Colonel Landa, assigned with supervising security at the theater for the night.
Ah, yes, Landa. Christoph Walts is the one who was singled out by the awards circuit, and I find it hard to argue with that. In a vast field of colorful but somewhat flat characters, his is the one with the most intrigue. With childlike glee and polite manners he toys with his opponents, making sure that they never know how much he knows (him ordering a glass of milk for someone at a restaurant might be one of cinema’s bigger understated dick moves). Hunting jews is his job, and he’s damn good at it. It’s a very fun performance by Waltz, and he commands every scene he’s in.
Compared to him, every other character seems almost one-dimensional. Laurent’s Shosanna might be the closest thing the film has to a proper protagonist, but she’s defined solely by her desire for revenge. Brad Pitt is given little to do other than delivering speeches and arguing in a thick southern accent (humorously present even when dropping a few choice words in Italian). Other members of the Basterds squad, such as Til Schweiger‘s Stiglitz and Eli Roth‘s “Bear Jew” Donny Donowitz (a role originally offered to Adam Sandler), are rough and tough badasses adept at killing Nazis and little else. Some other principal characters include German actress and double agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), Nazi war hero slash heartthrob Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) and British officer Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) who’s tasked with setting the Basterds’ Operation Kino is motion.
Inglourious Basterds didn’t improve for me on this second watch. Some of the suspense is understandably lost when you know who’s going to die where and when the bad guys will seize the advantage. It is also kind of odd to see certain characters get grand introductions knowing that they won’t actually end up doing much in the film. I am actually slightly mystified at the immense love this film has garnered. It certainly doesn’t have the complexity of a Pulp Fiction, nor the flashiness of a Kill Bill. Yet it seemed to appear on everyone’s Top 10 of its year. On a movie subforum I frequent, it somehow ended up at #17 on a voted list of the top 100 movies of all time, behind 12 Angry Men and Seven Samurai but ahead of Vertigo and Casablanca. I struggle to see such greatness in it.
But being “not the best movie Tarantino has ever done” can still be better than most, and make no mistake: I really like Inglourious Basterds. It’s a highly entertaining romp, gleefully altering the real events of World War 2 to tell an engrossing story of vengeance and violence. Tarantino’s trademark love of cinema is clearly present throughout, the set designs impress and it is somewhat liberating that the characters are allowed to speak the languages they should (I’m always irked by Germans speaking English with an accent when they should be speaking German, for instance). The film moves at a brisk pace, making the 150-ish minute run time fly by with no fidgetting in the seat, and the director’s penchant for irrelevant small-talk in his characters is kept relatively restrained. On its own merits, Inglourious Basterds is a great watch, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself revisiting it again in the neat future.