"D-J-A-N-G-O. The 'D' is silent," is how Django, Jamie Foxx's slave-turned-bounty hunter spits his name at a Mandingo (slaves used as to-the-death gladiators for blood sport) owner. This latest film by Quentin Tarantino is equal parts aggressive and entertaining, and is an exciting new path for the veteran director to take.
The Mandingo owner's response was, "I know," which is a play on the fact that this bit-part character is played by Franco Nero, the Italian actor who played the original Django in the original 1966 film, which rivaled Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leon's "man with no name" trilogy.
Whereas Tarantino has traditionally been a rabble-rouser who tries to reinvent, at least for the mainstream market, film technique from story organization to perspective, his love of classic exploitation movies and spaghetti westerns come through here unchanged. His homages and his accurate stagings depict his most straightforward love affair with cinema yet.
The treble-heavy original theme song, complete with whip-cracks, the lettering of the opening credits and the ever-so-lightly overexposed wide-angle landscapes of the opening scene all set the classic spaghetti-western tone and style of the film, as does the brutality inherent in the slave chain gang being driven by the Speck brothers across the prairie and into the cold winter night.
It's in this chain that Dr. King Schultz, a German-born bounty hunter posing as a dentist, first meets Django, and the first of their adventures begins. Schultz is played by Christoph Waltz, who is making his second appearance in a Tarantino film, following his amazing performance as Nazi Col. Hans Landa in 2009's "Inglourious Basterds," following a career mainly within German television soap operas.
Django is purchased by Shultz to track down some plantation owners who used to beat him and who have federal warrants on their heads, "dead or alive." Since Schultz doesn't care much for slavery, after he collects the bounty he agrees to give Django his freedom.
That initial deal doesn't last too long in terms of screen time. Instead, we learn that Django has a wife named Broomhilda Von Shaft (which is apparently a play on a rumor started by Tarantino himself that Shaft, the blaxploitation action star, is descended from these two), which peaks Schultz's interests because she's a former house slave who can speak German. (Begin the telling of German folk tales about how a hero named "Seigfried" so loved a mythical Broomhilda that he climbed through treacherous mountain terrain to slay a dragon, and burned himself in hell-fire to save her from her exile on the mountain ...) This is where Tarantino begins to stretch the film into something it shouldn't be. This is not the re-telling of classic tales updated for the worst parts of American history. This is a hilarious and ultra-violent modern take on the Western genre - which, if it weren't for this and the Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men" - would be all but dead.
The plantation Candie-land, run by Calvin Candie, is known by slaves everywhere as a dire place driver by old-money Candie, who has an affinity for running Mandingo fights. Django poses as the lowest of the low, according to him: a black slaver specializing in Mandingo fighting, with Schultz posing as the money-man looking to buy a champion fighter.
Whereas the jury is still out on whether Mandingo fighting actually existed (and historians who spoke with Slate magazine largely deny it based on economic reasoning), that is completely unimportant to this fictional story. What matters is how real the cruel and violent slavery comes across. Leonardo DiCaprio, admittedly not one of my favorite actors, shines here in full pretentious wickedness. The spark in his eye for violence is matched only by the decay of his teeth as he sucks down cigarette after cigarette from an extra long holder. DiCaprio himself got so into the role that at one point when he slams his fist on the table, he does so with such force that he cuts his hand open and continues the take as though it were intended.
Fulfilling fan expectations, Tarantino casts two people who have been fading from stardom. Don Johnson (best known for 1990's TV's "Miami Vice") plays "Big Daddy," a hilariously dumb slaver who can't even figure out how to conduct a raid properly. James Remar - now best known as Dexter's ghost dad on Showtime's "Dexter" but fondly remembered for roles in 1970's "Cruising" and 1969's "The Warriors" - is in two separate roles, the first as a Speck brother in the beginning of the film, and as Butch Pooch, Candie's bodyguard.
The standout favorite character, judging from loud audience laughter, was Tarantino mainstay Samuel L. Jackson as "Stephen," an Uncle Tom-like house slave who is at least as cruel to his fellow slaves and nearly as powerful on the plantation as his beloved master, Candie.
The blood, gore and harsh language with a plotline based on vengeance would make this film Tarantino's answer to the beautifully violent and crass films of Sam Peckinpah, who was the first director to repolish the Western genre for the more violent film era of gangsters and murder.
Despite pacing problems - the aforementioned poorly-planned raid went on far too long, but I feel like I may be alone in this assessment - the film is one you'll want to see again because it's just that good.
Director: Quentin Tarantino; Studio: The Weinstein Company and Columbia Pictures; Rated R; Flint's finding: Four out of five stars.
(Flint McColgan is a staff writer for The Minot Daily News. His movie reviews will appear periodically in Thursday's Arts &?Entertainment section.)