Quentin Tarantino's career has just been building toward his epic "Inglourious Basterds." It's almost as though he had to learn a new cinematic lesson from each of his films.
In his 1992 debut "Reservoir Dogs" QT figured out how to be cool. In his 1994 breakout "Pulp Fiction" he discovered how he could both innovate and homage simultaneously. In his 1997 underappreciated masterpiece "Jackie Brown" he learned how to create deep characters who connect in memorable relationships. The 2003/2004 extravaganza "Kill Bill" taught QT how to film electrifying action sequences. And the 2007 bomb "Death Proof" hopefully gave him a bit of humility. (It also shattered his fans' delusion that he had a cinematic Midas touch.)
Now QT puts these pieces - cool, innovation, homage, strong characters, and electrifying action - into finally filming the epic script that he's been working on for a decade. And, oh, was it worth the wait.
The "Basterds" refers to a team of Jewish-American soldiers deployed into occupied France in 1944. (And by the way, apart from taking place in World War II and featuring a few historical figures the story is entirely fictional. This is unfortunate; if only this actually happened.) The Basterds mission is summed up by their commanding officer, a hillbilly soldier played with flair by Brad Pitt:
"My name is Lt. Aldo Raine and I need me eight soldiers. We're gonna be dropped into France, dressed as civilians. We're gonna be doing one thing and one thing only... killing Nazis. Members of the nationalist socialist party conquered Europe through murder, torture, intimidation, and terror. And that's exactly what we're gonna do to them. We will be cruel to the Germans and through our cruelty they will know who we are. They will find the evidence of our cruelty in the disemboweled, dismembered, disfigured bodies of their brothers we leave behind us."
Members of the Basterds include Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger,) a German defector responsible for killing a dozen SS and Gestapo officers before being recruited to the team and Staff Sergeant Donny Donowitz, the so-called "Bear Jew" ("Hostel" director Eli Roth.) The Bear Jew is notorious for using a Louisville Slugger to beat Nazis to death.
The Basterds aren't the only ones out to get the Third Reich. Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) is a British undercover operative sent by General Ed Fenech (a delightful Mike Myers) to assist the Basterds with the help of German movie star Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger.)
Unknown to the Basterds but also working toward a Nazi defeat is Shoshanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) a young woman who owns a Parisian movie theatre and is secretly a Jew.
These groups are in conflict with the greatest, most seductive villain Tarantino has ever created: SS officer Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, who won a Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his performance.) Landa is a cunning, elegant detective who has earned the nickname "The Jew Hunter" for his expertise at accomplishing his assigned mission of smoking out hidden Jews in France. The cerebral but intimidating Landa is the perfect foil for the more brawny approach of Pitt's Lt. Raine. Tarantino might be right in suggesting that Landa is the greatest character he's ever written.
Landa isn't the only Nazi villain in the film, though. Such real life antagonists as propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth,) and Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke) also play memorable roles.
Tarantino's epic is the best film to be released so far this year. Like last week's "District 9" it hits all the right buttons with elements of action, drama, comedy, and horror. However the picture creates another cinematic fusion that very much puts it alongside Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction." And this is one almost never seen apart from Tarantino's work: the marriage of the grindhouse with the arthouse. Tarantino's premise - a team of ruthless, Nazi-scalping "Basterds" - is drawn from the tradition of ‘70s and ‘80s exploitation cinema. And while still incorporating a lot of the over-the-top elements from this genre, Tarantino also injects a sense of sophistication. He features more drawn out dialogue scenes and doesn't hesitate to use subtitles throughout the film.
Part of the film's emotional effectiveness is in its fantasy element. Anyone who has ever had any familiarity with the pure evil of Nazism can relate to Tarantino's fantasy. This is a cinematic suckerpunch to Nazism. Watching it and living vicariously through the "Basterds" allows for the cinematic escape of the Summer. In this sense "Basterds" is Tarantino's harder "Raiders of the Lost Ark," a Jewish revenge picture against Nazi evil.
Among Tarantino's ensemble cast Waltz is not the only performance needing praise. Pitt's Lt. Raine is the film's version of Samuel L. Jackson's Jules Winfield from "Pulp Fiction." He continually generates a bold, audacious protagonist. "Basterds" should also serve as a nudge to filmmakers: Pitt needs to be cast in more redneck roles.
So now that Tarantino has filmed his magnum opus where does he go from here? There are still plenty of genres and styles left for him to explore. If "Basterds" taught him anything new to add to his cinematic palette then it cemented his mastery of drama. All throughout the film Tarantino creates tense, serious scenes that would be at home in the kind of "highbrow" pictures that usually get nominated for Best Picture.
The next challenge for QT: to prove that he can put aside his grindhouse, exploitation tendencies and make a straight drama. "Basterds" shows that he has the ability. But does he have the will? Remember, Steven Spielberg, the same director who first made "Raiders" went on to make "Schindler's List," one of the greatest dramas of all time. QT is every bit capable to chart a similar trajectory.