Quentin Tarantino’s had a hard time as of late; his last film – cult collaborative work, Grindhouse – was a box-office disaster, his “Death Proof” segment heavily lambasted by critics who accused the director of finally caving in to the infuriating self-indulgence which even the his most hardened fans must admit had always bubbled under the surface of his work. Thankfully, Inglorious Basterds handles itself far better and, though not the director’s best offering, is certainly one of his most enjoyable.
The film, as per Tarantino’s usual fare, follows several intertwining storyline threads spread over several of the film’s “chapters,” all revolving around a special screening of one of Hermann Goebbels’ films in a small cinema once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France. One involves the venue’s owner (Méanie Laurent), who as a child saw her family massacred by the event’s chief of security (an outstanding Christoph Waltz) and now plots revenge, another sees Michael Fassbender’s critic-turned-soldier try to infiltrate the premiere via Diane Kruger’s actress double-agent, whilst tying everything together are the titular Basterds, led by a gurning Brad Pitt, and dedicated to scalping every Nazi within sight. Suffice to say, there’s a lot going on.
But where Tarantino succeeds is though his characteristic writing pervades the film it never conquers it – dialogue is witty without becoming self-indulgent, meaning that despite a running time well over two hours, the film never sags thanks to its wonderful pacing. Though some might perceive Fassbender’s segment (which features, of all people, Mike Love Guru Myers as an English CO) as an oddly isolated inclusion, it nonetheless provides some terrific tension, the kind which only Tarantino can sustain with the wit and brevity which he does. Likewise, the Basterds’ segments come as an oddly refreshing, ludicrously-fantastical gore-soaked break from the rest of the film; German scalps are ripped, swastikas are carved into foreheads and motormouthed Hostel director Eli Roth beats heads in with baseball bats as “The Bear Jew.”
Inglorious Basterds is, essentially, what Death Proof should have been; an excellent, well-judged mix of tragedy and comedy, celebration and pastiche. Though its soundtrack, peppered with the occasional bout of Morricone genius, isn’t Tarantino’s best and proceedings lack the soul of, say, Jackie Brown, this is – more than anything – the film experience of the year; a frequently side-splitting romp which will thrill casual audiences and fans of the director equally.