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License to kill
August 26, 2009 - Rick Chatenever
With a hundred-watt twinkle in his eye and a Kentuckee twang in his voice, Brad Pitt cavorts through “Inglorious Basterds,” playing Nazi-scalping Lt. Aldo Raine as though he’s doing the latest “Oceans 11” movie instead of refighting World War II.
At the top of his game and reversing a trend that’s had studio bosses wondering if those A-list stars are worth their $20 million paychecks, Pitt’s collaboration with writer-director Quentin Tarantino seems a marriage made in box-office heaven. Topping the charts this week, “Inglorious Basterds” is being likened to “Saving Private Ryan” and World War II classics from bygone times.
Unlike those films, however, Tarantino doesn’t see any contradiction between doing history and tacking on a surprise ending. Everyone may already know how things turned out in reality, but that doesn’t deter him from presenting his version.
To rewrite an immortal song line from the encyclopedia of film trivia he carries around in his head, the fundamental things don’t apply, as time goes by.
Taking inspiration from a 1978 Italian war movie by the same title (but spelled correctly), he fights World War II by his own rules. The “Pulp Fiction” auteur has hillbilly Pitt leading a band of Jewish-American soldiers behind enemy lines in occupied France, where a fastidious German colonel (played by a fascinating Christoph Waltz) hunts French Jews with creepy zest.
The “Basterds” settle the score with knives and baseball bats, massacring German soldiers and mutilating their bodies. It’s grisly psychological warfare, the kind of barbaric sadistic acts our side is supposedly fighting against. It’s intended to unnerve the Nazis (the way Pitt says the name sounds more like the nasties.) And the strategy works, eventually getting the attention of the apoplectic Der Fuhrer (Martin Wultke) himself.
Tarantino brings his distinctive style and wonderful storytelling gifts to the saga, divided into five chapters. It all leads up to the premiere of Joseph Goebbels’ latest propaganda film in a Parisian theater that will be attended by all the leaders of the Third Reich. Why, if the Basterds could crash that party, the rest would be, as they say, history.
Adding brash swagger and more contemporary attitude to World War II movie cliches, Tarantino picks up the “Defiance” theme of Jews who didn’t march meekly to the ovens, but fought back with savagery to match the Nazis’ ruthlessness.
Along with the noble cause of fighting Hitler, the “Kill Bill” creator adds his own reckless kind of fun. He frames shots and spices the soundtrack with esoteric cinematic references, then shades the whole thing with the blackest humor and stomach-churning, over-the-top violence whenever things lag.
As with Baz Luhrman’s epic misstep, “Australia,” you get the sense that for Tarantino, the purpose of World War II wasn’t to rid the world of fascism, but instead, to generate great war movies.
It’s not an accident that the climax comes in a movie theater, coinciding with a film within the film. In Tarantino’s universe, believing — truly believing — in movies trumps believing in whatever they stand for.
Wanting to have it both ways, paying homage to cinema myths while winking at the audience, leaves a strange lasting effect. Fueled by Pitt’s tongue-in-cheek charisma and Waltz’s intriguing creepiness, I thoroughly enjoyed the wild ride for two hours. Unfortunately, the movie’s two-and-a-half hours long.
Pitt was quoted by People Magazine this week saying this should be the last World War II movie. “With Basterds, everything than can be said to this genre has been said,” he reportedly told a German magazine. “The film destroys every symbol. The work is done, end of story.”
Maybe. But what bothered me at the screening I attended was that at the two-hour mark, several of the young guys sitting around me reached for their cell phones. It was as though we had simultaneously hit the deficiency zone of their attention disorder.
Whether they were texting or actually talking (“Yeah, I’m watchin’ a movie, wassup … ?) their glowing little screens were like fireflies in the dark.
To the old guy in their midst, it broke the spell. It raised the troubling thought that when it came to World War II, they might well mistake Tarantino’s creative license — sort of like a Nazi-themed fever dream — for what really happened.
Or the scarier thought that one way or the other, they didn’t much care.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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