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Django Unchained

Django Unchained

By Ben Nicholson • May 23rd, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 4/5
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Release date: May 20th, 2013
Running time: 165 minutes

Writer and director: Quentin Tarantino

Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson

Django Unchained

The movies of Quentin Tarantino and I have had a somewhat turbulent love affair since I first saw Pulp Fiction (1994) in the 2001. For a long time, that movie would’ve found itself in a list of my very favourite movies; not quite so high up now. It’s still his earlier movies that do, though, still have me enraptured. From his debut with Reservoir Dogs (1992) to the first instalment of his ultimately bloated samurai revenge drama, Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003), via 1997’s Jackie Brown. It may not all be gold but I thoroughly enjoyed them each in their own way. The dialogue was great. The criminal characters were entertaining at least and engaging at best.

Sadly, I slipped off the Tarantino bandwagon a little after the ponderous Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004), and felt that Death Proof (2007) was a further mis-step, at least in the elongated form which was released in the UK. Having had my expectations built after enjoying the trailer’s for 2009’s Inglorious Basterds, the film fell completely flat for me, sadly. I struggled with many of the characters, and whilst certain scenes stood out, I found the majority of the rest tediously dull. Whilst I think his new film, the controversial Django Unchained (2012), has some similar problems to it predecessor in certain areas, for the most part it’s a return to form.

The title, and lead character, are a reference to a famous series of spaghetti westerns that began in 1966 with Sergio Corbucci’s Django, starring Franco Nero in the lead roll. Dozens of films followed which favoured quick-drawing gun play and a laconic hero with the same name but only one of these was an official sequel. In Tarantino’s addition to Django‘s rich history, he’s re-imagined him as a freed slave and crossed the genre with blaxploitation to create a ‘Southern’.

Django Unchained

The movie’s become the centre of controversy in different areas since its initial release in the United States with Spike Lee once again weighing in on race issues as he’s wont to do. It’s difficult to discuss his own views without being biased by my opinion of the man himself, but as well as the usual recoiling at the violence of a Tarantino film, this time he’s decided to tackle the difficult subject of slavery. Naturally it was always going to divide opinion, but it’s a least noting that the film has sparked a debate about the subject which was previously not happening. The less said about his reaction during a recent interview in the UK the better. So, to the film itself.

We open on a rocky strip of sierra where a gang of slaves trudge along in irons. The protagonist’s glorious theme song from the original plays loudly; the type face is a throwback; Tarantino won’t be skimped on his famed referential style in this outing. Django (Jamie Foxx) is one of this group but is swiftly removed from his chains when he’s purchased by a roving dentist, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). The latter’s hostile appropriation of our hero lead to the first moment of, as the director’s termed it, “cathartic violence”. Having extricated Django from the slavers by killing one, Schultz leaves the other to remaining unchained slaves to do with as they please. Warning: This film may contain blood.

The two men set off on their quest. Schultz, we learn, is actually a bounty hunter, having given up dentistry a few years earlier. He’s taken Django onboard because he was formerly the slave on a particular plantation where he was overseen by the brutally violent Brittle brothers. They’re now in hiding after having a sizeable bounty Django Unchainedplaced on their heads and the German dentist needs help in identifying them. For his aid, Schultz will give Django some money, clothes and, most importantly, his freedom. During their mission, however, Schultz learns of Django’s wife, Brunhilda (Kerry Washington) and agrees to help him save her if Django will work as his partner for the winter.

With Django being the fastest gun in the South, and Dr. Schultz a charming, intelligent and inventive bounty hunter, they’re rather successful. When the spring arrives, the two of them set off to the notorious plantation – Candyland – at which Brunhilda is currently placed. Under the pretext of buying one of his “mandingo” fighting slaves, they visit the owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and, unsurprisingly, the blood hits the fan.

As with any yarn from the fast-talking renegade Quentin Tarantino, there are things you should expect going into the film; great dialogue, a smattering of pop culture references, violence, crime and general coolness. All of this, and more, are present in Django Unchained.

The performances from the three leads are all very good with Jamie Foxx perfectly balancing the angry, silent aspects of Django with the blaxploitation cool that the director’s style demands. Leo is thoroughly enjoyable as the dastardly – almost Django Unchainedmoustache twirling – villain Calvin Candie making him the charming southern gentleman but giving him a believable menace. Despite this, it’s Christoph Waltz who somewhat steals the show as the ex-dentist. He’s a perfectly verbose complement to Jamie Foxx with whom he strikes up a rather touching and believable friendship.

The laughs come thick and fast as do the trademark references. One of most enjoyable is a brief cameo from the original inhabitant of the role of the eponymous gun-slinger, Franco Nero, who appears as an Italian slave trader. The biggest issue that the film does have, and this is not a new one for the director, is over indulgence. I’m pretty sure that there is a great 90-120 minute movie hiding inside this one. The final, slightly repetitive finale could perhaps have happened slightly differently, but it’s a general tightening that feels like it was needed.

Yes, there’s gruesome violence which did feel like it went on a little too long in my opinion. If you don’t appreciate lashings of blood, then the film won’t be for you. However, if you were a fan of the original Django, or like spaghetti westerns, exploitation cinema, or Tarantino, then you’ll undoubtedly get a lot out of this. And, by checking it out, you can join the raging debates on violence and slavery as well as watching the director’s satisfying spin on the genre.

Flight Of The Navigator

Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson

Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.

His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.

Ben has his own film site, ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE, and you can follow him on Twitter @BRNicholson.

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