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Django Unchained


Django Unchained
I must confess that, like Spike Lee, I prejudged Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. However, my reservations stemmed not from any debate over ownership of the story Tarantino ventures to tell but from the opening credits. Titles in a spaghetti western typeface display on the screen as Luis Enrique Bacalov's theme song from Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 Italian Western Django plays. I feared these were signs of Tarantino's notorious pedantry that would result in an unemotional exercise in pastiche.
Inevitably, Tarantino’s encyclopedic knowledge of film, particularly genre, rivaled only by that of the Coen Brothers is on full display in Django Unchained. There are plenty of cinematic allusions and insider casting decisions, such as Franco Nero, the star of Django, as a Mandingo fight gambler, Tom Wopat from The Dukes of Hazzard as a U.S. marshal, and Jonah Hill as a member of a bumbling Ku Klux Klan group. When eventually outfitted in Western wardrobe complete with low-slung holster, star Jamie Foxx draws obvious comparison to “The Man with No Name.” But whatever rules of the cognoscente Tarantino is following here, none take away from his telling a brave and brilliant story.

In the antebellum South, several slaves marked as rebellious and runaway are forced to march to worse fates through the unforgiving Texas plains until bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), on the search for a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx), dispatches their cruel custodians. Schultz contracts with Django for money, provisions and his freedom in exchange for the slave's help in identifying his next marks, the fugitive Brittle brothers who worked as brutal overseers on the plantation where Django and his wife, Broomhilda ( Kerry Washington), had been separated.

After the capture and killing of the Brittle brothers, Django remains with Schultz, who mentors him in the art of bounty hunting. Enchanted by the story Django tells of Broomhilda and endeared to her because of her German background, Schultz comes up with a plan to rescue Broomhilda from the notorious plantation Candyland, owned by affected Francophile Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Gaining access to the plantation under false pretenses, Schultz and Django spend a harrowing afternoon embroiled in the brutality of slavery's practices and a tense evening under the suspicious eye of Candie's head house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).

Tarantino directed Waltz to an Oscar three years ago as Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds . Now, Waltz again performs with perfect comedic timing but also displays a charming and heartfelt moral ambivalence. Yes, Schultz is essentially a hit man, but he's also a philosopher. And he wields Tarantino's sharp dialog like a skilled surgeon with a scalpel. He's smart and dangerous with a fun sense of the absurd—traveling incognito as a dentist, his wagon is topped by a giant tooth on a spring that bounces back and forth as he drives.

In comparison, Foxx plays Django as dark and silent, giving needed gravitas to the character. There are untold horrors behind those eyes that is more than evident in his actions. For the first time it seems, Foxx gets to sink his teeth into a dynamic role. Given the proper instruction, Django becomes a smoldering leading man, able to single handedly pull off a vengeful bloodbath. But not without first earning that right.

Django Unchained is so much fun to watch. It contains bucketfuls of cartoonish violence and some slapstick humor. But overriding all the ridiculousness is a clear sense of purpose and a righteous quest. Tarantino smartly handles the message of the movie, judiciously handling a very sensitive subject without minimizing it. He then balances it out with ludicrous events that are genuinely funny. And none of this gets in the way of the characters, particularly Django and Schultz, who drive the film. The result is practically giddy-inducing. You'll want to stand up and cheer.

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