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‘Django' off the chain: Tarantino's top shelf

Dec. 24, 2012 - 02:36PM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 24, 2012 - 02:36PM  |  
In "Django Unchained," Jamie Foxx, right, stars as a slave freed by a bounty hunter, Christoph Waltz, who needs help tracking his quarry.
In "Django Unchained," Jamie Foxx, right, stars as a slave freed by a bounty hunter, Christoph Waltz, who needs help tracking his quarry. (Andrew Cooper / The Weinstein Co. via AP)
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‘Django Unchained’

Rated R for intense violence, language, adult themes.

Haters gonna hate, and there are plenty of people who hate Quentin Tarantino for his smug, cooler-than-you attitude and self-indulgent, oversized ego.

But even his detractors must admit the guy has a bone-deep passion for both the craft and the lore of movies. And when he's on his game, there's no other filmmaker like him: He's seared my brain with some of the most indelible moments I've ever experienced at the octoplex.

He goes completely off his nut with his latest film, "Django Unchained," an uproarious pre-Civil War revenge flick set in the slave-shackled Deep South.

It's a glorious, over-the-top homage to the spaghetti westerns of yore endless waves of knife-edge dialogue, top-shelf acting, thunderous action and exquisite camera work, with a hefty subtext about America's lunatic history of race relations.

The story opens in 1858 in Texas as two bounty hunters march five runaway slaves back to bondage. Out of the darkness creaks a wagon with a large fake tooth mounted on a coil on the roof, comically waggling back and forth with the wagon's motion.

The driver is a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter: dapper King Schultz (Cristoph Waltz), who has an interest in one of the slaves, Django (Jamie Foxx).

Schultz needs Django because he's after three wanted men who once worked as overseers on the plantation Django ran away from. Schultz doesn't know what they look like, but Django does. And an unlikely partnership is born.

On the way to find their quarry, though, Schultz stops to take care of other business. Confronting a town sheriff, Schultz shoots him square in the chest, in full view of the local citizenry.

I can't give away what happens next it's too delicious. Let's just say it's pure Tarantino.

Schultz and Django find their three targets in the employ of plantation owner "Big Daddy" Bennet (Don Johnson), and the ensuing confrontation shows that Django has a talent for hunting men.

So Schultz, who lacks any trace of racial intolerance and finds the concept of slavery absurd, asks Django if he'd like to partner a while longer. "Kill white folks and they pay you for it? What's not to like?" comes the reply.

As they travel, Django reveals that his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who was sold separately because she also kept running away, had been taught Schultz's native tongue by her original German master.

Intrigued by this link to his homeland, Schultz agrees to help Django rescue "Hildy" from the oily clutches of Mississippi plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leo DiCaprio, tearing into the role with satanic glee) and his boss slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).

Django's twisted road to bloody redemption is enthralling, an incendiary mix of white-hot violence and surreal humor.

The best example of the latter is a gut-busting scene that would make Mel Brooks proud, in which a bunch of nitwit nightriders out to gun down our heroes are sidetracked into an absurd argument over the poorly aligned eyeholes of their ill-fitting hoods.

The outrageously bloody climax is cause for slack-jawed amazement way beyond even Tarantino's iconic "Kill Bill" scene when Uma Thurman dismembers 100 ninjas.

Through it all, the relationship between Schultz and Django is the heart of the story, and Waltz and Foxx are magnificent. No one will beat out Daniel Day-Lewis for the best actor Oscar for "Lincoln," but I think Waltz absolutely deserves a nomination.

Beyond the leads, a big part of the enjoyment of many Tarantino films is his joy in filling bit parts with familiar faces, some of which you can't quite place until you see their names in the closing credits. The list here is robust: Johnson, Bruce Dern, Michael Parks, Robert Carradine, James Remar, M.C. Gainey, Tom Wopat and James Russo, among others.

As always, Tarantino must give himself a cameo the kind of touch his detractors love to seize upon. But the fate he devises for his character here is so morbidly funny, so self-deprecating, that all you can do is laugh. Hard.

At 2 hours, the film is long, something I routinely rant about in this space. But this is the rare exception that never feels draggy.

"Django Unchained" is a shiny outer shell of dazzling cinematic technique wrapped around a chewy moral center. It ranks among Tarantino's best work.

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