Inglourius Basterds

Quentin Tarantino has a simple formula for drama: put some characters with weapons together and see how many ways they can find to kill each other, after they have some great conversations about pop culture first, of course. In Kill Bill the weapons were Samurai swords; in Inglourious Basterds they use machine guns, Bowie knives, baseball bats and burning movie theaters. Yes that’s right. It’s time for another gab and gore fest from Quentin Tarantino, a master of both those things.

Here’s the set up. Lieutenant Aldo Raine, played with a thick Tennessee accent by Brad Pitt, is assigned the task of assembling a commando squad, made up primarily of Jewish Americans, men who would be motivated for the task ahead of them, which is mainly to be dropped into occupied France for the very simple purpose of killing Nazis. Raine sets the head count at 100 per squad member. But you get the impression that’s just a nice round number. He’ll take more.

Most of the previews give the impression that Raine’s mission is the entire movie. Actually there are two other plots that weave in and out of the Basterd’s story. One concerns Shosannah Dreyfus, played by Melanie Laurent, who has primarily worked in French film up til now. Shosannah’s family is betrayed and killed at the beginning of the war. She escapes to Paris and somehow winds up running a movie theater. When a Nazi war hero named Fredrick Zoller takes a liking to her and convinces Goebbels, played by Sylvester Groth to move the premiere of the film based on Zoller’s exploits and starring the young man himself, to her theater, she is presented with an opportunity for revenge.

The third plot line is similar. The British get word of the premiere and recruit cinephile commando Lt. Archie Hicox, played by Michael Fassbender to attend the showing and bomb the theater, killing Goebbels and a lot of other Nazis as well. He is to be helped in this scheme, dubbed Operation Kino by the Basterds and German movie star Bridget von Hammersmark, played by Diane Kruger, who is a double agent.

There are so many cool things happening in this movie that it’s hard to pin down. Like every Tarantino movie, it’s about language, in this case, how hard it is to infiltrate another culture even if you know the language. In one scene Lt. Hicox is exposed as a spy by his accent. Lt. Raine is, of course, completely unable to mask his thick mountain accent and is caught within minutes of his arrival at the premiere. There’s also something about reputations and how they help or hinder someone. In almost every scene, someone asks, “Have you heard of me?” I have to admit that I haven’t quite figured out what it means yet.

Inglourius Basterds is a long film, but you don’t mind. Most of the length is Tarantino’s brilliant dialog, so while it does bog down the plot, you are entertained, and as I’ve said language is a large part of what the film is about, so it fits. Besides this films crackles with energy and most of it comes from the performances. Brad Pitt’s comic acting chops are underrated. His delivery of the classic Tarantino lines will be running through my head for a long time. Melanie Laurent captures the coolness of a French aesthete and combines it with the rage of a vengeful Jewish woman. But stealing every scene he’s in is Christoph Walz, who plays Colonel Hans Landa, a frighteningly smart SS officer, who can be charming but deadly. That performance is worth the price of admission alone.

Of course every Tarantino film is also about movies. Here he is constantly referencing war movies, especially cheesy men on a mission movies like The Dirty Dozen or the Italian film from the seventies with the same name as this one only spelled correctly. In the end it is film itself that completes the mission. I won’t tell you how. But I can say that it doesn’t conform to the accepted history of the war. That may raise an eyebrow or two but in the end it’s all part of the fun. Movie stars have been winning World War II for over fifty years now. It’s only fair that Brad Pitt gets his turn.

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