Inglourious Basterds (R)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
When revisiting World War II at the movies, it's natural to want to transcend the mawkish and gingerly tedious subgenre of Serious Holocaust Drama. However noble in purpose or tactful in approach, the Serious Holocaust Drama always seems to find itself rendered trivial by the enormity of history.
So how about making triviality the point? How about a cinema-worshipping adolescent fantasy of tense anticipation, mouthy wit, beautiful women, brave men and brutal vengeance — writ large via swastikas carved into foreheads and skulls cracked open with a baseball bat or a hail of gunfire to the face? Better?
Probably not, but that's what you're gonna get from Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, whose mission is to repurpose the war movie as a giddily revisionist genre mash-up, and whose title is a coyly deliberate misspelling of the English title of a 1978 schlock epic by Enzo G. Castellari.
Tarantino's "Basterds" comprise a squad of Jewish soldiers behind enemy lines in occupied France. Their leader is Lt. Aldo "the Apache" Raine (Brad Pitt), a war-hardened Smoky Mountain hillbilly, who tells them in his dumb, sometimes-Dubya-like voice, "Each and every man under my command owes me one hundred Nazi scalps. And I want my scalps." No exceptions! Except maybe for Sgt. Donnie Donowitz (Tarantino protégé Eli Roth), aka "the Bear Jew," who apparently is excused from the quota because his weapon of choice is the aforementioned Slugger.
"Watchin' Donnie beat Nazis to death is the closest we ever get to goin' to the movies!" Raine tells one victim, and in the gruesome scene that follows, it's only partly reassuring to think that goin' to the movies is the closest Tarantino ever has been to watching anyone beat Nazis to death. But he certainly understands his Basterds' motivations: The idea is to become famous through a reputation of extraordinary cruelty and fearless panache.
Actually winning the war seems like less of a priority, until British Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) arrives and hatches a plot with German actress and undercover agent Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) to blow up a movie theater full of Nazi top brass. Complicating matters is the fact that the theater's secretly Jewish owner, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), has a similar plan. That's because Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a German war hero, has taken a fancy to her and arranged for a propaganda film about his valor to premiere in her cinema. And the chief of security for this occasion is Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), also known as "the Jew Hunter," the man who murdered Shosanna's family.
As you might guess just from its description, Inglorious Basterds is overwrought with expository contortions. In lieu of strong characterization, it has magnetic performances; in lieu of story development, sadistic suspense. It gets by on typical Tarantino gumption. Sure, there's that exhaustingly self-enchanted dialogue, but it's in multiple languages! Sure, that narration comes in late, out of nowhere, and doesn't go anywhere, but it's Samuel L. Jackson! Sure, that music cue seems ham-fisted, but it's David Bowie!
Serious Holocaust Drama this is not. It's more like a smug, glamorous, violently inclined cartoon. Which is why, although the diabolically charismatic Waltz holds the film together, Pitt will have to be its poster boy. "Nazi ain't got no humanity!" Raine bellows, implying that neither should anybody else — at least not at the movies.