Hipster filmmaker Quentin Tarantino refuses to explain the intentional misspelling in the title of his weird World War II epic Inglourious Basterds. The titular Basterds apparently care no more for spell-check than they do the rules of war. Dashing, drawling Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) leads a squad of eight Jewish-American G.I.s into occupied France with the sole purpose of killing as many German soldiers as possible. The idea is that the “disemboweled, dismembered and disfigured bodies” will freak out Hitler’s high command.
The Basterds aren’t just guerillas but wartime terrorists who scalp their victims and never hesitate to kill, torture or deny medical care to fight the “Natzis.” At first, Tarantino seems to present an inflammatory apologia for torture and prisoner abuse, a la “24.” Inglourious Basterds arrives in theaters in the midst of an American health care debate that’s hurling Nazi metaphors and swastikas around like blunt instruments. Will town-hall meeting protesters take up the film’s symbolism and call themselves Basterds?
Maybe not, for Inglourious Basterds isn't the movie it’s sold as, or initially seems to be. Sorting out Tarantino’s intentions for his bold, eccentric WWII fantasy is like defusing a meticulously crafted time bomb that could be either a dud or a high explosive.
Based on the premise and the trailer, it certainly looks like an homage to grubby wartime mission movies like The Dirty Dozen. The title riffs on Italy’s The Inglorious Bastards, a forgettable Bo Svenson/Fred Williamson Army actioner from 1978. The plot evokes the kill-Hitler caper of Valkyrie and the Jewish resistance of Defiance. Pitt clearly loves swaggering around and chewing on Lt. Raine’s dialogue: “Fightin’ in a basement offers a lot of difficulties, number one being, you’re fightin’ in a basement.”
The film, however, isn’t really even about the Basterds. Apart from Pitt, the American roles have precious few lines, and some of the Jewish-American squad members we scarcely see.
Tarantino devotes more time to Shosanna Dreyfus (lovely Mélanie Laurent), a young, Jewish fugitive passing as the owner of a gorgeous movie house in German-occupied Paris. An unquestionably charming German soldier, Private Zoller (Daniel Brühl) chats her up. Brühl’s boyish, gentlemanly performance cuts against the film’s demonization of Germans and cartoonish portrayals of Hitler, Goebbels, et. al, as shrieking tyrants. It turns out that Zoller isn’t just a war hero, but also the star of Nation’s Pride, a German propaganda film about his exploits. When Zoller arranges for Shosanna’s cinema to host the premiere, she and the Basterds independently recognize the chance to strike a devastating blow against the Nazi leadership.
Such a description makes Inglourious Basterds sound like a more exciting movie than Tarantino wanted to make. Wartime mission movies usually prove to be process-oriented and show teams of experts building booby traps, attaching wires to sticks of dynamite, and sneaking past guards. Basterds provides almost none of that. While Tarantino tends to be associated with hyperactively stylish filmmakers like Guy Ritchie, he’d much rather create tensions through conversations than munitions. Comparable to Kill Bill: Vol. 2 and most of Death Proof, Basterds emphasizes so many talky confrontations that probably 90 percent of the film could be redone as a stageplay, with only minor changes.
Most impressive of the verbose exchanges is the long introductory sequence, in which a French dairy farmer (the dignified Denis Menochet) receives an unwelcome visit from SS Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). Waltz deservedly won a Best Actor award at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival for the role. Landa is polite to the point of unctuousness and uses his solicitous manners to psych out his opponents in cat-and-mouse games. In a later scene, Landa insists Shosanna try some German strudel and his gentility turns to subliminal menace, like the way Samuel L. Jackson made a veiled threat of the line “Mighty tasty Kahuna Burger!” in Pulp Fiction.
The film makes yet another digression with the introduction of English characters. Austin Powers’ Mike Myers enjoys playing the Basil Exposition role of a general who sends elegant film critic-turned-lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) to join the Basterds on Operation Kino. Fassbender could be a matinee idol, but his inclusion, and a seemingly endless basement standoff, feel like unnecessary detours.
If you thought the film’s 1940s setting would limit Tarantino’s pop references, you were mistaken. He footnotes plenty of American and European studio-era films, from King Kong to the mountain movies of Hitler’s favorite director, Leni Riefenstahl. He even works in a highly effective David Bowie song. Tarantino also seems fascinated by the interplay of different languages, and occasionally leaves French or German discussions untranslated to build anxiety.
Rather than craft a straight-up war movie, Tarantino seems more interested in using violence to meditate on cinematic myth-making. As usual, he offers a film dense with overt and subtle tributes to other movies (particularly the work of Sergio Leone). He repeatedly establishes characters as iconic figures of wartime folklore, with their own nicknames and signature props. Aldo “the Apache” has a giant bowie knife. Landa “the Jew Hunter” whips out a Sherlock Holmes-style pipe. Hostel director Eli Roth half-convincingly plays a brawny, bat-wielding Basterd called “the Bear Jew.” The film takes careful pains to establish intriguing roles, then moves onto others, so the payoff seldom seems equal to the build-up.
Amid what could be a lavish, ultraviolent, pro-American propaganda film, Tarantino provides glimpses of Nation’s Pride, a similarly bloody movie with the opposite point of view. When Tarantino strays from the history books for Basterds’ finale, he may be signaling that he doesn’t intend the violence to be taken at face value. He could be celebrating the power of cinema to transcend historical fact, or just tweaking the audience, the characters and even himself for indulging in a WWII revenge fantasy. Inglourious Basterds gives viewers plenty to argue about, practically shimmers with the love of cinema, and introduces a splendid villain in Waltz’s Landa. Its frustrations only prove that Tarantino himself is kind of a bastard.