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“Kill white folks and they pay you for it…..What’s not to like?”

What’s not to like indeed as Quentin Tarantino delivers us all the finest Christmas present this year with the shockingly entertaining DJANGO UNCHAINED, a massive overdose of bloodshed, humor, and torture, all wrapped up with ample use of the notorious n-word. Quentin Tarantino is in exhilarating form and Spike Lee is calling for a boycott! Happy Holidays!

Set in the Deep South just before the Civil War, DJANGO UNCHAINED stars Jamie Foxx as Django, a slave who joins forces with bounty hunter/dentist Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German-born upper-class gentleman who appears out of the woods like a ghost and travels with a wacky giant tooth on a spring atop his wagon. He’s on the trail of the murderous Brittle brothers, and needs Django’s help in tracking his bounty.Django is focused on one goal: finding and rescuing Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the wife he lost to the cold-hearted slave master Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the proprietor of “Candyland,” an infamous plantation where blacks engage in MANDIGINGO –style gladiator battles. Django and Schultz’s search ultimately leads them to entering Candyland under false pretenses, which arouses the suspicion of Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s trusted house slave, a white-haired  Uncle Tom with a mean streak. Can Django and Schultz outwit both Candie and Stephen and rescue Broomhilda?

DJANGO UNCHAINED takes its title (and opening theme song) from Italian director Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 spaghetti Western DJANGO, which spawned dozens of imitators and was itself inspired by Sergio Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964). Corbucci’s antihero was played by Franco Nero, who makes an amusing cameo in Tarantino’s film. As he does in much of his work, Tarantino pays homage to films of the past even as he sends them up and then roars past them into a zone all of his own. He’s at his best when he loads his films with esoteric and obscure references that are made palatable for a mainstream audience. If you don’t know the references, then you won’t even know that they’re there and it won’t matter and in that sense, Tarantino represents the best of both worlds. The fast cuts, quick zooms, and grainy flashbacks throughout DJANGO UNCHAINED are all totally in the vein of ‘70s Blaxploitation films. His western is ridiculously entertaining yet even more so for movie buffs obsessed with films of the ‘60s and ‘70s who not only will recognize the films he’s associating but some of the actors that populated them (Don Stroud, Bruce Dern, Russ Tamblyn, Michael Parks, Dennis Christopher, Robert Carradine, and Lee Horsley are all in there somewhere though you may – or may not recognize them).

While some writers tend to overpopulate their screenplays with large character counts and we forget who half of them are and never know what’s going on, QT makes each of his many characters in this 2 hour and 45 minute epic memorable and unique. There’s a ton of dialogue (has there ever been a western with more?), but it’s more than just witty; it also exudes feeling, dread, and risk. How and why people speak to each other becomes a panic far more chilling than any violence in the film. Tarantino is also brilliant at letting a scene build tension to the very edge of reason over long amounts of time. The lengthiest sequence in the film is a dinner where Candie starts out by delivering a scientific discourse on the small brains of African slaves, a scene that goes on without break or reprieve, lingering in places where you expect him to cut, giving his characters time to recite his trademark repartee. No one in this scene is really who they say they are and when it all explodes, it’s like a Wild West version of the tavern sequence from INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS.

As expected, Tarantino gets outstanding performances from his cast.  Jamie Foxx hasn’t done much since winning his Oscar eight years ago but he’s given  a meaty role and he tears into it, though his glower is low-key compared to the rest of the cast. DiCaprio, in an unusual supporting role, shows that he’s capable of playing a truly despicable villain. Waltz is again spectacular in his blend of jocularity and danger. Jackson’s deplorable and pitiable Stephen is the film’s most complex character and is in many ways the truest villain here. In addition to appropriating existing film scores (a QT trademark), including music from the legendary Ennio Morricone, the sound track of DJANGO UNCHAINED, a 19th-century story,  is sprinkled with songs from the 1960s and ’70s, including Richie Havens’ “Freedom” and Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name”.  It’s jarring at first, but ultimately fits in smartly.  If there’s a downside to DJANGO UNCHAINED, it’s that it ends, and you know you’ll have to wait another four years for Tarantino to do it again.

5 of 5 Stars

DJANGO UNCHAINED opens in St. Louis today at (among other places) Landmark’s Tivoli Theater

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