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      Inglourious Basterds Review

      Inglourious Basterds poster

      Inglourious Basterds

      Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

      A queasy historical do-over, Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" has been described as a grindhouse version of "Valkyrie"; a rhapsody dedicated to the cinema's powers of persuasion; and a showcase for a 52-year-old Austrian-born character actor named Christoph Waltz, who waltzes off with the performance honors as a suavely vicious Nazi colonel known as "the Jew hunter."

      All true. Tarantino's seventh full-length film recasts the iconography and mythic cruelties of Sergio Leone's Westerns as the stuff of World War II history - not the history we know, but an alternate-reality version in which Adolf Hitler exits, pursued by a machine-gunning character known as "the Bear Jew." The result is a Jewish "Death Wish," to borrow Pauline Kael's description of "Marathon Man," amped up to epoch-changing proportions, made by a gentile writer-director with an unlimited appetite for celluloid, right down to its highly flammable properties.

      I don't know if I've ever seen a revenge fantasy so willfully messed up, sometimes offensively so, that still manages to be worthwhile for whole sections of its 2.5 hours. The opening is as good a sequence as Tarantino has ever created, and that includes the best bits in "Pulp Fiction," "Jackie Brown" and "Death Proof" (my three favorites of his to date). The year is 1941, "once upon a time ... in Nazi-occupied France," the title card informs us, in the first of several hundred Leone lifts. A provincial French dairy farmer and his daughters are visited one day by Col. Landa (Waltz), who suspects the farmer of hiding Jewish neighbors on his property.

      This being a Tarantino film, the stalker in effect filibusters his prey, praising the farmer's fresh milk, the beauty of his daughters. Like so many in Tarantino's work, the scene relies on a methodical buildup, some self-conscious and peculiarly funny details strewn along the sidewinding conversational path - and then, murderous violence.

      Visually the premise is straight out of "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." The approaching Nazis could well be the Old West sociopaths of a Leone landscape. Yet in the prologue, Tarantino absorbs his visual influences sparingly. The menace emerges from the silences between the words exchanged, warily, between Waltz's Landa and Denis Menochet's farmer, both exceptional.

      "Inglourious Basterds" takes its title (and little else) from the pulpy 1978 Enzo Castellari World War II programmer. By the midpoint we've been introduced to the "bushwhackin' guerrilla army" set up by "Aldo the Apache" Raine, a one-dimensional character played, in the appropriate number of dimensions, by a comically jaw-jutted Brad Pitt. His squadron of eight Jewish-American soldiers has orders to scalp 100 dead Nazis apiece. They do so with relish - they're basically as vicious as the Nazis they're after, only righteously so - and Raine brings the same relish to the job of carving swastikas into the foreheads of surviving Nazi prisoners.

      If this sounds like something out of, say, "Hostel," then perhaps this is why "Hostel" director and Tarantino crony Eli Roth (who can't act worth a damn) has been cast as the baseball-bat-wielding Donny Donowitz, whose mythic reputation has been giving Hitler (Martin Wuttke) panic attacks and the Third Reich something to worry about.

      So is this a "Dirty Dozen"-style mission movie, the mission being the elimination of Hitler and the end of the war? Not really. "Inglourious Basterds" has more to do with cinephilia than combat, and its heart belongs to a young woman featured in the opening sequence. Melanie Laurent portrays Shosanna, who - jumping ahead to 1944 in Paris - has assumed a new, non-Jewish identity and runs a cinematheque with her projectionist lover (Jacky Ido). The Nazis are to take over the theater for the premiere of their latest propaganda effort, a war film called "Nation's Pride."

      Every image, every conversation in "Inglourious Basterds" constitutes a hyperlink to another, earlier film. A Nazi sharpshooter debates the merits of silent star Max Linder versus Charlie Chaplin. A British spy (Michael Fassbender, excellent in too small a part) has a background as a film critic. A Dietrich-esque German screen siren (Diane Kruger), in league with the basterds, becomes a crucial player in the film's other standout sequence, in which Fassbender's critic-turned-spy, posing as a German officer, tests his linguistic skills against the skepticism of a cadre of Nazis in a basement-level French tavern.

      Surrounded by a fair amount of sadism - most of it played for cheap, lingering thrills, such as Pitt poking his finger inside Kruger's gaping bullet wound - the tavern melee comes at you hard and fast. Death means something here, if only because it happens so suddenly. Tarantino's World War II universe (more artificial and hermetic than the "Kill Bill" movies, even) has no interest in realism, or conventional action. But the more the writer-director dives into cuckooland, especially at the climax, the less it all matters and the more galling the whole jape becomes. Half the time we're watching human beings caught up in a war and a genocide that Tarantino sees to it we recognize, if only from B-movies made in Hollywood during the war; the other half goofs around with daydreams of rewriting WWII history in crimson and arc lights.

      Top-billed Pitt plays Tarantino's idea of a cartoon tough guy - Aldo Ray, Lee Marvin and a few other stray dogs put together. Waltz, by contrast, transcends the facetiousness and very nearly makes this farrago worth seeing. Landa's heinous charm is his most threatening weapon, and the actor glides in and out of three languages (German, French and English) with insidious ease. He's awfully good. So is Laurent; so are Fassbender and Kruger. These actors pull you in. Tarantino's use of the Ennio Morricone music, or the Giorgio Moroder "Cat People" theme (!), or the footnote-style Samuel L. Jackson voice-over narration, yanks you straight out again.

      The movie hasn't changed much since its premiere earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival, beyond the addition of some valuable footage featuring Fassbender and Pitt setting up the tavern scene. As always, but here more than ever, Tarantino goes for the buffet approach. Here a little Leone; there a little Ernst Lubitsch. Here a little Fritz Lang "Man Hunt" (the fascinating 1941 novelty, which opens with Walter Pidgeon aiming his rifle at Hitler's heart); there, somewhere, amid the layers of all the brutal kitsch and artifice, a little Quentin Tarantino.

      MPAA rating: R (for strong graphic violence, language and brief sexuality).

      Running time: 2:32.

      Starring: Brad Pitt (Lt. Aldo Raine); Christoph Waltz (Col. Hans Landa); Melanie Laurent (Shosanna); Diane Kruger (Bridget von Hammersmark); Daniel Bruhl (Fredrick Zoller); Michael Fassbender (Lt. Archie Hicox); Eli Roth (Sgt. Donny Donowitz); Sylvester Groth (Joseph Goebbels); Martin Wuttke (Adolf Hitler); Jacky Ido (Marcel).

      Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; produced by Lawrence Bender. A Weinstein Co. release.

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