Like every new Quentin Tarantino movie, from his scintillating debut gangster flick Reservoir Dogs through to his glorious World War II adventure Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained has moseyed into town with a posse of movie references (QT never rides without his goofy cinematic sidekicks).
In the gang are Sergio Corbucci’s Django, the cult spaghetti western that provides Tarantino with his hero’s name, the opening song and a cameo by Italian star Franco Nero; then there’s the superior examples of the genre from Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; Once Upon a Time in the West); and there are the blaxploitation westerns of the 1970s such as The Legend of Nigger Charley (about a vengeful black cowboy) and Goodbye Uncle Tom (a stomach-turning depiction of slavery).
However, there’s one cinematic antecedent that has rarely been mentioned in the marketing and reception of Django Unchained, a revisionist fantasy about a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter who joins forces with a freed slave in the pre-Civil War South: Mel Brooks’ classic western spoof Blazing Saddles.
In the funniest scene he’s written since the gangsters in Reservoir Dogs fought over their multicoloured code names, Tarantino has a group of Ku Klux Klan knuckleheads gunning for Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and Django (Jamie Foxx) argue over the peepholes in their white hoods.
“I watched my wife work all day to get 30 bags for you ungrateful sons-of-bitches and all I can hear is criticise, criticise, criticise,” complains one of the rednecks before he rips off the offending disguise and rides home.
It’s classic Mel Brooks and so is plenty of the rest of Django Unchained, which also features a smooth, impeccably dressed black cowboy shocking the white folks by being so uppity and joining forces with a cool, racially progressive European to wreak bloody vengeance in the antebellum South.
Even though Django Unchained is under fire from all sides for its Sam Peckinpah-inspired volcanic eruptions of blood, it is the most effortlessly amused and amusing of all of Tarantino’s films and features arguably his warmest central relationship, a sweet-natured pairing between two hip guys who are a glimpse into the future of black-white relationships that reached its apotheosis with the election of Barack Obama (they’re today’s Butch and Sundance).
The more violent aspects of Tarantino’s movie have melted away since I saw it before Christmas, most especially the ultra-bloody climax that recalls the shootout in Oliver Stone’s Scarface that had audiences laughing (and that was in the week of the Sandy Hook shooting).
However, I’m still floating on the memory of those early scenes in which the floridly loquacious Schultz (nobody, not even John Travolta, has served Tarantino’s writing better than Waltz) seduces the understandably mystified Django into joining him in his murderous moneymaking business. “Kill white folks and they pay you for it? What’s not to like,” muses Django.
Indeed, I’ve really come to like Tarantino the satirist — aspects of Inglourious Basterds recalled Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be which Brooks himself remade — at the same time as scratching my head at his continuing attachment to violence in its pulpiest form. He seems to be maturing and immaturing at the same time.
But I am happy to forgive Tarantino’s excesses and lapses of judgment in Django Unchained, such as his baffling appearance as an Australian bounty hunter with John Jarratt in tow, because the good stuff is so damned good, beginning with his masterful evocation of the spaghetti western, a stunning meshing of his own talky, slow-burn style with the aural-visual tropes of (in particular) Sergio Leone.
But Tarantino is no mere mimic because Django Unchained is filled with breathtaking originality, none more so than the character of Stephen (a stunning Samuel Jackson), the black head of the plantation owned by preening Francophile Calvin Candie (a gleefully villainous Leonardo DiCaprio), who is a more aggressive racist than any of the white folks that he serves.
Spewing the n-word with even more lip-smacking anger and pleasure than a contemporary gangster rapper and deeply suspicious of Foxx’s Django, who has travelled to the ironically named Candyland to free his enslaved wife (Kerry Washington), Jackson’s Stephen is a frightening creation, an Uncle Tom on steroids who must be the worst kind of nightmare for an African- American audience.
It is pure pulp, of course, but this is the language of Quentin Tarantino and you either go with it or get out of Dodge quick smart.
However, if you can get into QTs groove, to adjust to those jarring shifts from good-natured Mel Brooks-inspired hipster satire, explosions of violence both shockingly realistic and cartoonish and telling observations about the history of slavery, then Django Unchained is a thrilling ride, the good, the bad and the ugly in a single blast.
Django Unchained is now screening.