Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Tarantino makes history…

To proclaim that Tarantino’s done it again may seem like a rather glib statement, but that makes it no less true. With Inglourious Basterds, the film-maker has produced another breathless example of a style of cinema he has made firmly his own; a brash celebration of everything we have come to associate from the man who brought us generation-defining fare like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. And it is so deeply Tarantino – from the beautifully crafted opening scene that proves to be a masterclass in quiet tension, to the no-holds-barred explosive climax – that it is yet another directorial double edged sword. Because, as with the entirety of his back catalogue, Tarantino has made no compromises in making a film on his own meticulous terms so that, although it may be his most wide-reaching to date, it will continue to alienate those who don’t buy into his unique style. But for those who do, Basterds is a blast.

It’s World War II and the brutal Nazi regime is running roughshod over most of Europe, including France. When the Allied Forces decide enough is enough they send in the Basterds, a ruthless but elite group of soldiers who hunt down and kill Nazi wrongdoers. Lead by the determined Lt Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), the Basterds take great pride – and pleasure – in collecting the scalps of their enemies. As calculating German Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) gets ever closer to tracking down Raine and his men, Parisian cinema owner Shoshanna Dreyfuss (Melanie Laurent) and celebrated actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) are drawn further into a daring plan that, if successful, could bring the war to an end.

It takes a confident – indeed, some might say arrogant – director to play around with the facts of history, but Tarantino has built his reputation in being audacious and his re-imagined World War II is an absolute thrill ride. It’s certainly not intended as a deep exploration of the physical and psychological brutalities of warfare, rather it’s a bloody fight between good and evil, a razor sharp pastiche of old-fashioned war movies with a gung-ho mentality that keeps the whole thing moving at a clip despite it’s two-hour-plus running time. Again, Tarantino is not asking his audience to take him seriously – apart from as a film-maker, perhaps – but rather to sit back and enjoy everything he throws at us.

And everyone up on the screen is clearly having an ball, with Brad Pitt relishing the chance to throw off his pretty boy, leading man image with a character who, despite fighting for the greater good, is almost as charmingly psychotic as his Early Grayce from 1993’s Kalifornia. But although Pitt is the biggest name on the playbill, he doesn’t spend a great deal of time on screen; rather the film belongs to Melanie Laurent and Christoph Waltz. French actress Laurent is a perfect femme fatale; devastatingly beautiful yet possessed with an appealing iron will and proactive attitude that see her become central to the Basterds plan to take down the Third Reich. It’s Austrian actor Waltz who steals the show, however, imbuing Col Landa with a chilling menace that’s both mesmerising and intimidating and putting in a performance that deservedly won him Best Actor at Cannes. Special praise, too, must go to Kruger for her charming turn as Hammersmark, a woman with a great deal of brute strength despite her poise; and to Michael Fassbender, who demonstrates that good old English stiff upper lip to perfection with his Lt Archie Hicox.

In addition to his expert characterisation, other Tarantino trademarks come thick and fast. A lengthy but hugely effective tavern altercation, between Basterds posing as German officers and real Nazis, demonstrates the director’s oft-maligned love of dialogue and prove him to be a master of wordplay even when writing in another language. It also showcases his love of bloody, close-quarters confrontation, which is at the very heart of the film – the Basterds don’t use bullets, preferring to engage in up-close-and-personal knife fights. The soundtrack, too, continues Tarantino’s reputation of being a master of the cinematic mix tape; carefully selected classics from Ennio Morricone, Elmer Bernstein and even David Bowie add to the atmosphere and provide an emotive aural backdrop for the events unfolding on screen

Tarantino has said he doesn’t see his film as a fairy tale or fantasy, despite its ‘Once Upon a Time’ opening line, which clearly gives the director licence to deviate from historical fact. Rather, he explains, it’s intended as a plausible version of WWII that could have happened if his characters had existed. That’s a neat way of looking at it and, despite the fact that it’s obviously pulp fiction, his characters are so well defined and their exploits so well crafted – everything from costumes to locations have been scrupulously chosen for maximum authenticity and impact – that there is a definite sense that if Raine and his crew had been in operation, Hitler would certainly not have died alone in a bunker. And, as such a slice of alternate history, Inglourious Basterds is bold, brazen and satisfying in the extreme.

5 stars

Stars Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Diane Kruger, Michael Fassbender, Melanie Laurent
Director & Screenplay Quentin Tarantino
Certificate 18
Distributor Universal Pictures
Running Time 2hrs 33mins
Opens August 19