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Django Unchained (2012)

December 25, 2012



written by: Quentin Tarantino

produced by: Reginald Hudlin, Stacy Sher and Pilar Savone

directed by: Quentin Tarantino

rating: R (for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity. 

runtime: 165 min.

U.S. release date: December 25, 2012


With each movie, Quentin Tarantino has proven himself a filmmaker who revels in the genres he immerses himself in. From 1992‘s “Reservoir Dogs”, the heist film that started his directing career to “Inglorious Basterds”, his revisionist WWII film from 2009, his enthusiasm for each subject matter he tackles is ever-present. By now, we pretty much know what we’re in for with a Tarantino film; there’s the cool dialogue and the snappy banter and the requisite blood and violence. That’s what viewers will find in his latest, a comical yet unsettling blaxploitation/spaghetti Western hybrid that may be Tarantino at his loosest, but also one that doesn’t shy away from the atrocities of slavery. Merry Christmas, everyone!



Two years before the Civil War began we come across a lone rider who happens upon the Speck brothers (James Russo and James Remar) who are on their way to a slave auction with a handful of strung-up Negroes. The rider is Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a former dentist-turned-bounty hunter who is out looking for a specific slave that can help him track down the   Brittle brothers. When Schultz learns Django (Jamie Foxx) is that slave, he emancipates him and extends a partnership. Django proves himself to be a worthy hunter with their first assignment, so the uncanny duo spend the winter collecting bounties, building a symbiotic chemistry as Schultz fine tunes Django’s natural abilities for the profession.

Schultz eventually discovers that all Django wants is to reunite with his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who’s been sold off to brutal plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Mississippi. The clever German agrees to assist in Django in retrieving his wife, strengthening their bond on their journey as they come across an assortment of stereotypical Southern characters, like Big Daddy (Don Johnson, resembling Col. Sanders) and situations, like a KKK posse. Things get complicated though once they finally reach the plantation (called Candyland), when the cantankerous Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s suspicious righthand man sniffs out the plan the two bounty hunters have hatched. When that plan goes array, it’s going to take more than Schultz’s usual smooth-talking to see the duo, with Broomhilda, exit safely.




Having been an outspoken film geek who’s voiced his love for Spaghetti Westerns in the past, it was only a matter of time before Tarantino made a Western. The call-back to those films is obvious with the inclusion of select songs by Luis Bacalov and Ennio Morricone throughout the film interspersed with tunes by Rick Ross, John Legend and James Brown. His inclusion of Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name” was particularly funny to me, showing once again Tarantino’s knack for placing musical nuggets in his films. When this film’s title was announced, it would appear he was also a fan of “Django”, the 1966 Italian Western starring Franco Nero (who has a small part here), but that’s really all his eighth film has in common with that seldom seen Western. Making the title character of this action/dramedy/romance a Negro slave sets it apart from the Westerns most audiences will be familiar with. For a director who’s often considered the whitest black man,  it’s no surprise to see Tarantino helm such a film, but it is nevertheless quite refreshing to see an African-American take the lead in a highly-anticipated current release.

Tarantino has always excelled at getting the right cast for his films. Actors definitely seek him out and while certain ones had to back out (unfortunately Kurt Russell, to name one) of “Django Unchained”, it showcases a solid cast. Seeing Jamie Foxx portray Django, with his silent glares and deliberate body language coming across as both nuanced and commanding, it makes sense Tarantino didn’t go for his rumored first choice, Will Smith. That would’ve been too jarring, considering he had his shot at a Western with the abysmal “Wild Wild West”. Foxx not only has the proper physicality, but also conveys the right attitude throughout. You believe will do and say anything to get his wife back. It’s also a real kick seeing him paired with Waltz, who’s hasn’t played a character this rich (and comical) since his Oscar-winning role in “Inglorious Basterds”. In fact, there are moments where this feels like Waltz’s film, having a purposeful impact in just about every scene he’s in as Dr. King (irony?) Schultz. There are moments where  Tarantino is clearly paying homage to the buddy film subgenre and seeing these two actors develop a bond onscreen is probably one of the more interesting and entertaining things to watch this year.




As the reprobate bad guy, Leonardo DiCaprio has quite a multi-layered role to chew on. At first, he seems downright cartoonish and sometimes he is, but he also exudes a seething menace that isn’t to be trifled with. What I found interesting was how he takes for granted the comfort of his wealth and the power he wields, which eventually proves to be his Achilles heel. Jackson’s Stephen may be more of a bad guy than Candie, having betrayed his people and resting easy as a miserable old goat who’s risen to his position during what we assume to be a life of slavery.

Rounded out the cast is an assortment of character actors and has-been faces from television that Tarantino obviously has a fondness for. They never really pull you out of the movie like Mike Myers did in “Inglorious” but seeing Tom Wopat, Jonah Hill, M.C. Gainey, Lee Horsely Bruce Dern, Michael Parks, Dennis Christopher, Walton Goggins made me smile (even laugh out loud in certain moments) and a closer look will also find Amber Tamblyn (whose father, Russ Tamblyn was in a couple of well-known Westerns back in the day), Zoe Bell and Robert Carradine in silent cameo roles. Even Tarantino himself shows up to remind us that he’s a better director than he is actor.




One thing that will certainly be on viewer’s minds after watching “Django” is how bloody it is. Again, uncommon for Tarantino or the genres he’s mashing, but nevertheless, certain scenes will remain with you. That’s Tarantino’s goal and he makes sure the sound of gunfire crackles our ears and the whip lashes have us cringing in our seats. Seeing Candie watch as his redneck lackeys let their dogs have their way with a slave is a particularly sadistic sight. The screams haunt us as he’s torn apart, which factors greatly later on at a pivotal moment. It’s definitely why Tarantino emphasizes the uncomfortable sequence, but that doesn’t make it any less disturbing. He even incorporates a fictional sport called, Mandingo fighting (probably incorporated for Tarantino’s affinity for the 1975 exploitation film, “Mandingo”), where slaves are forced to participate in a ruthless wrestling match to the death in Candie’s parlor, for the entertainment of rich white folk. As much as all this adds up to Tarantino’s trademark approach of making his audience squirm in their seats (although true QT fans embrace this approach, I’m kind of on the fence), all of it builds up to an inevitable and legitimate act of revenge for Django to dispense.

At close to three hours long, “Django Unchained” does meander a bit. I didn’t mind it too much except toward the end, but one can’t help but wonder if the 2010 death of his longtime editor Sally Menke (replaced here by Fred Raskin, who worked on the “Kill Bill” movies) had any impact. Still, the characters with their clever dialogue and verbose monologues are captivating to watch, making up for any lulls in the story’s pace. This may be the one Tarantino film besides “Jackie Brown” (which also opened on Christmas Day 15 years ago) that could warrant a sequel. I’m just not sure where it would go since Django – spolier alert – dispenses his revenge in full. But, I’m kind of happy that Tarantino has never made an official sequel of any of his films.

Fans of Tarantino, Foxx and the Western genre will want to check “Django Unchained” out, but if you’re unsure about any three of those you may want to reconsider. This isn’t a movie out to send an impacting message, (except to display a truly despicable time in the South – which is why Tarantino calls it a Southern, instead of a Western) nor is it out to be as groundbreaking as “Pulp Fiction”. It’s an opportunity for a stylish auteur to stretch and exercise his considerable talent on something rowdy and grand, a film that’s fun, funny and bloody.




RATING: ***1/2




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