Tuesday 13 August 2019

From the archive: "Inglourious Basterds"

There is much to get over if you're going to get anything out of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. That spelling, for one: enough, surely, to drive Lynne Truss to correct every bus shelter ad in the land with a fat red marker pen. There is the absurdity of a television promo campaign that can't bring itself to utter even a misspelled B-word. And, finally, there is the proximity of Tarantino himself, whose tremendous interviews continue to mask the diminishing returns of the films themselves. The big question his latest poses is this: can we trust Quentin Tarantino with the events of the Second World War? The answer, alas, is probably not.

Borrowing its title and stance from a 1971 Italian B-movie, Inglourious Basterds reinterprets the war as a spaghetti Western, pitting flamboyant SS "Jewhunter" Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) against the titular Basterds, a platoon of Jewish-American soldiers, led by the grinning Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), who delight in scalping their Nazi victims. Somewhere in the middle, we find the Brits, introduced in a bizarre scene that offers The Birds' Rod Taylor as Winston Churchill, plus Mike Myers in latex liver spots and Michael Fassbender as a film critic-turned-commando. (Transferable skillset? I should coco.)

In theory, this is a film movie lovers should love, so obviously has it been tailored - in such knowing casting and characterisation, in its recycled soundtrack cues - to our requirements. Yet I had an almost identical response watching Basterds as I did watching Death Proof and Kill Bill. Admiration for Tarantino's voracious appetite for cinema history, his willingness to let his international players speak in their own tongue and his desire to make so much of language gave way to regret, then irritation, then full-blown annoyance that so much energy and exuberance should have been put to such trivial and unedifying use.

Instead - in a 148-minute rehash of a 100-minute Euro-quickie - that energy converts to flab. The film grows lopsided with scenes of dialogue that gain no new narrative ground and which any other director would surely have felt compelled, or been obliged, to cut. Yes, there are occasional signs of the filmmaker Tarantino may yet come to be, with his wry, worldly amusement around those chance interactions wartime brings about. There's a certain freshness, for one, to the courting of Jewish refugee Melanie Laurent by earnest German Daniel Brühl, while Waltz, the Cannes Best Actor winner, has a high old time interrogating anybody who crosses his path.

You just wish Tarantino had made like those television commercials and dropped the Basterds altogether, who - urged on by Pitt in his Ocean's 11 mode of resistible insincerity - are just so boorish, so boring, so much the product of an adolescent imagination. For the first time since Leni Riefenstahl - namechecked here, in familiar, wearying Tarantino style - a director's technique leaves you cheering unabashedly for a little Nazi discipline.

(Sunday Telegraph, 23rd August 2009)

Inglourious Basterds is available to stream on Amazon Prime, and on DVD through Universal Pictures.

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