Review by The Isolated Moviegoer:
In a year where marquee films clocked in at over 2.5 hours as if by law, who would have guessed that Quentin Tarantino’s entry would feel least justified in its runtime? Yet that’s precisely what happens in Django Unchained, an uneven Western-Blaxploitation hybrid that plays more like a collection of promising scribblings in Tarantino’s notebook than a cohesive work. From the mind of a filmmaker famous for well-crafted entertainment, it’s a surprisingly blunted experience that, despite its share of highs, produces just as much of a quality all prior Tarantino films have managed to avoid: boredom.
Such doldrums are practically unthinkable after an amusing and varied opening act, in which freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) joins former dentist Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) for a season of bounty hunting. Loaded with everything from a bumbling KKK exchange to the arresting image of blood spritzing a field of clean white cotton, this vista-filled introductory section offers the distinct brand of high entertainment on which Tarantino has built his career. Anchored by Schultz’s silver-tongued charm, spouting deliciously advanced vocabulary that incites multiple requests for him to “speak English,” these moments build toward the film’s core mission, in which the pair set out to free Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from a particularly nasty Mississippi plantation named, of all things, Candieland.
Having witnessed Django mow down targets at long and close range with natural skill, Schultz figures the mission risky but doable. Django, however, is so good at his job that his effectiveness becomes an issue. Like a tension-free version of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, he’s a near-mythical badass, dispatching foes with nary a scratch and immune to any legitimate threats. Despite copious racist Southerners ready to pounce without remorse, Schultz’s insistence that Django receive freeman treatment further protects him at each potentially dangerous turn, allowing him to pass with repetitive ease.
Devoid of the nuance needed to enliven such an untouchable character, Foxx plays Django almost distractingly cool and calm, as if unwilling to revel in Tarantino’s dialogue while Waltz flexes each line with grand showmanship. With Foxx clumsily channeling the mystique of ‘70s black cinema icons, the resulting odd couple dynamic nonetheless carries the central storyline throughout the film’s first third, but as Django Unchained leans increasingly on its titular lead and his hazard-free revenge fantasy, the initial allure begins to fade.
The pair’s ticket to Candieland randomly falling in their lap, Schultz convinces Django to pass as an expert in Mandingo fighting, a sport in which two black men fight to the death and which happens to be the beloved pastime of Broomhilda’s captor, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). The instant this brutal parlor game is introduced, the film is granted a second chance at developing high stakes for its leads…and promptly blows the opportunity. Though surrounded by armed bodyguards, Schultz’s relentless Django-shielding reduces Candie to harmless, and while his methods both in Mandingo fighting and on his plantation are brutal, such means are inflicted upon minor characters while Django remains safe. After nearly two hours of this bubble-boy security, little seems likely to change, and as that reality dawns, so does a deficiency hitherto unthinkable in a Tarantino film.
The filmmaker’s dialogue, typically taut and focused, here plays like a ghost of its former glory. Gone is the precision of his comically wordy and tense scenes most successfully executed in Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds. The exchanges are still long and circuitous, but many become lost on their poorly-mapped routes, only to arrive at so-so punchlines that are rarely worth the wait. Nowhere is this half-done style more abused than at Candieland, an almost unforgivable missed opportunity of powder-keg suspense. Django’s fate assured from the start, there’s minimal tension in their true intention being discovered, and instead of ratcheting the mood in any manner, the film leaves Schultz to chat with Candie & Associates about random underdeveloped tidbits. During these ennui-filled moments, the collective cast’s painfully put-on Southern accents prevent any successful flow between characters and Tarantino’s lack of self-editing produces exchanges so choppy that his writing borders on self-parody.
DiCaprio, such an intriguing casting choice, suffers the most under this dramatic laziness and is given few notable lines. Also problematic is Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen, Candieland’s head house slave. Equal parts minstrel show caricature and heartless villain, Stephen’s embracement of slavery gives him the freedom to fully speak his mind, a liberty that yields mixed results. His constant nattering and use of the “n” word makes for plenty of intentionally uncomfortable moments, some of them hesitantly comedic, but arriving at the point of a Tarantino film where the director normally has the audience breathless in his grip, Jackson’s performance is merely a disruption that only adds to Django Unchained’s disjointedness.
True adventure at last returns in third act, a raucous shoot-em-up that’s scored at one point to a 2Pac banger. Despite the energy of this gunplay, however, the second act has so deadened the central conceit that the righteousness inflicted carries little weight, especially when it’s doled out by such an uninspiring character. Dressed up with occasional filters, zooms, and edits that recall the Westerns and Blaxploitation that inspired Django Unchained, Tarantino’s passion for referential entertainment persists, but only occasionally feels thought out. Once again, he’s emptied his grab bag of ideas in full, yet for the first time in his career, the contents are haphazardly assembled.
Rated R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity.
Django Unchained is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.
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