Attempt to put Quentin Tarantino in chains, and he’ll not only break free, but also bring about an even greater mayhem than he has done previously. It’s very appropriate, then, for this influential director to tackle the Western genre, where he is free to run amok like its inhabitants. The outcome is “Django Unchained,” a gleefully brutal and grandiloquent guilty pleasure that is Tarantino in every sense of the name.
Two years before the Civil War, a German bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) unorthodoxly buys Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave being transported through Texas. Needing Django to identify three varmints he’s hunting, Schultz promises to free him once the trio is killed.
Django seeks to locate and rescue his wife, Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington), who was separated from him long ago. Schultz, himself not a believer in slavery, decides to accompany him, and their search leads them to “Candyland,” an infamous plantation run by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his trusted, snake-like house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).
Rip-roaringly alive and never lacking panache, it’s an engrossing, fun and emotionally involving story. Within this Wild West environment, Tarantino creates what is perhaps his most mainstream film while remaining true to himself. For every bullet that is fired, blood sprays in appropriately copious amounts. Zingers incite hilarity even in the face of grave situations, and when necessary, tension effectively builds up to spellbinding and often brutally violent conclusions. Though the narrative here isn’t as complex as it is in Tarantino’s earlier works, it remains exhilarating throughout.
However, Tarantino creates such a rich, open world with so many opportunities to explore that “Django Unchained” doesn’t feel quite complete enough, despite its two-hour, 45-minute runtime. The role of mandingo fighting, which is where male slaves fight to the death for sport, in Candyland seems diminished, as do those of the characters played by the likes of Walton Goggins, the wordless Zoë Bell and several other cast members.
Jamie Foxx restrains his personality and channels Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name; speaking only when compelled to, he maintains a gruff, cool attitude, reminiscent of old Western heroes.
As Django searches for Broomhilda, he encounters a variety of vivid individuals, who are portrayed by an electric supporting cast. Waltz is born to play Tarantino’s characters, and spectacularly does just that with charisma. DiCaprio effortlessly slips back and forth between pomposity and menace as the villain who is as repulsive as his rotting teeth. Then there’s Jackson, pitch-perfect as the conniving Stephen, stealing every scene he’s in.
Helping to bring Django’s story to life is the immaculate look and sound behind the film. Cinematographer and frequent Tarantino collaborator Robert Richardson moves his camera attentively, never missing the characters’ actions while capturing impressive images. Costumes define individuals in the Western genre, and they are no different here. Complementing the gunshots is the film’s eclectic soundtrack, which even features Luis Bacalov’s original “Django” theme song from the 1966 film.
Tarantino brings forth the type of picture he would conjure up once he lets his mind roam in the Wild West. Though the film doesn’t entirely explore all the opportunities presented in its rich world due to an already long runtime, it still is a deliciously gratifying flick, with the perfect mix of humor and violence that you would expect from Tarantino.
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