Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Directed by Quentin Taratino
Starring: Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger
10 out of 10 stars.
I have a rule, one which I made for myself a long time ago as a general courtesy, but has become a more of a commandment in this day and age: never watch a remake of a film without first seeing the original. I refuse to be one of those moviegoers who narrowly assumes that a remake will be better than the previous version just because it‘s new. More often than not, remakes in this decade are made for the purpose of either milking dollars out of a recognizable name or an attempt to establish a new brand. Most of the films that have come out in recent years based on earlier pictures are empty, pale (and sometimes obnoxious) imitations that add nothing substantial to what has been done before. It’s become such a prevalent mode of business that even if I think the original film sucks, like the early Troma “classic” Mother’s Day (who’s remake is currently in production and is being directed by Darren Lynn “Saw” Bousman) I have zero confidence a new version will even be marginally better than the old one. I thought as I was walking into Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds that I was breaking my own rule. Unbelievably though, this was a case where the rules didn’t apply anywhere. Tarantino not only delivers a re-imagining that clearly stands proud on it’s own, but it’s also his most daring and outstanding work since Pulp Fiction.
This movie is based on a 1978 Italian-made World War II adventure entitled The Inglorious Bastards. Directed by Enzo Castellari, the film (judging by it’s trailer) looks like a rip-off of The Dirty Dozen, as a group of American soldiers wanted by their own for desertion or worse end up volunteering for a mission by the French resistance to steal Nazi weapons. Remaking The Inglorious Bastards has been a dream project for Tarantino since before Kill Bill, long before reduxes were the norm. The way in which these films are produced now, you kind of ask yourself why someone like Tarantino would be interested in making a straight-up, linear narrative action piece. I should’ve known that few things are certain in Quentin’s movie-making mind. Inglourious Basterds is not a straight-up remake of Castellari’s movie, and it’s not your standard action film set during World War II, it’s something wildly unexpected: a movie that plays by it’s own rules.
Inglourious Basterds centers around a group of eight Jewish Allied soldiers who are brought together by 1st Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) for “one thing and one thing only: killing Nazis.” We see Raine and his Basterds commit vile acts of murder and torture against German soldiers throughout occupied France, in the process building a fearful reputation. In addition we are introduced to Shosanna Dreyfus (played by French actress Melanie Laurent), a French Jew who witnessed her family massacred by the extremely charming, yet equally sinister Col. Hans Landa, AKA The Jew Hunter (Christoph Waltz). Years later, under an alias, she runs a cinema in Paris, and is pressured by a young Nazi war hero smitten with her into hosting the premiere of a new propaganda film. Everyone from Hitler to high-ranking officers to head of propaganda Joseph Goebbels to Col. Landa will be in attendance. Shosanna sees this as an opportunity to launch her own revenge plot against the Third Reich. The two storylines come together as the Basterds, in cahoots with a British officer and a German film-star-turned-Allies-spy, also plan to infiltrate the Nazi shindig.
Let’s first take into account that this isn’t the kind of re-imagining we’ve become accustomed to these days. Tarantino’s version bears little resemblance to the synopsis of the original. The only constant is the concept of “men on a mission” (not to mention a cameo by The Inglorious Bastards co-star Bo Svenson). Even the misspelling of the title gives you another clue to his intention. What he’s done is taken the basic idea and let his imagination run wild. So what’s a WWII film from the mind of Quentin Tarantino like? I guarantee you it’s unlike any you’ve ever seen. Inglourious Basterds isn’t a yarn that simply takes place during Word War II, it’s Word War II in an alternate universe. Instead of honoring history, Quentin decides to let the characters of his world dictate the outcome of events, opening the door for plenty of surprises for the audience. That’s only the start of the unexpected delights Tarantino dishes out. The trademarks of any Quentin Tarantino film are present in Inglourious Basterds, but not since Pulp Fiction have they’ve felt fresh. In his previous two pictures it seemed those standards- the use of dialogue to drive the story, found music, pop-culture references, etc.- were used to construct the movie. With this film, those techniques are used to a much more interesting effect. If this had been an accurate portrayal of the Second World War seeing 70’s-tastic name cards or hearing David Bowie’s 1982 song “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” would be disconcerting. Quentin isn’t trying to be hip this time. He’s letting the audience know they’re watching a vision of the war separate from history, and more importantly, that it’s okay to have as much fun as you want with it. This is a groundbreaking example of re-imagining that other filmmakers should pay close attention to.
Personally, I’m sick of the complaints I hear and read about Tarantino’s extensive use of dialogue in his last two films. To me, it seems the people who do gripe about that have never seen a Tarantino picture before or have blocked memories of his first three. Of course there’s talking in these movies! That’s what drives a Tarantino film. Each one is a exercise in putting potentially volatile people together to see what will happen. Inglourious Basterds is not a movie bookmarked by large action set-pieces. It’s about intrigue. This is the perfect vehicle for Tarantino’s style of storytelling, because nowhere before or since World War II have stakes been so high, and in no other Tarantino film has the tension between characters been so nail-biting.
Some might find the liberal use of history similar to Zack Snyder’s 300, but unlike the cartoon-y macho fantasy of that film, Inglourious Basterds is a real world populated with flesh and blood characters. Every performance in the movie is nothing but the very best. Don’t be fooled by the marketing campaign for the movie; Brad Pitt is not the star, only one part of an incredibly well-played, expansive ensemble. Pitt does has a ball with the hillbilly Lt. Raine, but Melanie Laurent will also go down as the most memorable Tarantino actress outside Uma Thurman, and Austrian-born actor Christoph Waltz creates one of the decade’s greatest villains as Col. Landa. The biggest surprise performance, though, is Eli Roth, who plays Basterd Donny Donowitz, AKA The Bear Jew. I haven’t been that impressed with a lot of what Roth has done as a director or actor, but in this film Quentin has definitely brought a very fine performance out of him. This could be the start of great things for him.
There is so much awesomeness found in Inglourious Basterds that it makes me want to continuously revisit it again and again. Especially since it all moves at such a brisk pace it feels nowhere near as long as it’s two-and-a-half-hour running time, and that is what is truly remarkable about the film. Quentin Tarantino seamlessly creates an epic that’s not only multi-layered, but also manages to be accessibly fast-paced entertainment. Whereas both Kill Bill and Death Proof were a bit masturbatory and inclusive, Inglourious Basterds proves Tarantino can still brilliantly bridge both sensibilities…and can still blow your fucking mind!