When revisiting World War II at the movies, it is natural to want to transcend the mawkish and gingerly tedious subgenre of The Serious Holocaust Drama. Efforts in that vein, however noble in purpose or tactful in approach, seem all too easily overpowered and rendered trivial by the enormity of history.
Brad Pitt keeps his shave close as scalp-crazy Lieutenant Aldo Raine in Inglourious Basterds.
So, instead, how about a cinema-worshipping adolescent fantasy of tense anticipation, mouthy wit, beautiful women, brave men and brutal vengeance—writ large via swastikas carved into foreheads and skulls cracked open with a baseball bat or a hail of gunfire to the face? Better?
Probably not, but that’s what you’re gonna get from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, whose mission is to repurpose the war movie as a giddy revisionist genre mash-up, and whose title, for no real reason, is a coyly deliberate misspelling of the English title of a 1978 schlock epic by Spaghetti Western veteran Enzo G. Castellari.
Tarantino’s “Basterds” are a squad of Jewish soldiers behind enemy lines in occupied France, led by Lieutenant Aldo “The Apache” Raine (Brad Pitt), a war-hardened Smoky Mountain hillbilly, who tells them in his dumb, sometimes Dubya-like voice, “Each and every man under my command owes me 100 Nazi scalps. And I want my scalps.”
No exceptions! Except maybe for Sergeant Donny Donowitz (Tarantino protégé Eli Roth), also known as “The Bear Jew,” who apparently is excused from the scalping quota because his lethal weapon of choice is the aforementioned slugger.
“Watchin’ Donny beat Nazis to death is the closest we ever get to goin’ to the movies!” Raines tells one victim, and in the gruesome scene that follows, it’s only partially reassuring to think that goin’ to the movies is the closest Tarantino ever has gotten to watching anyone beat Nazis to death. But he certainly understands his Basterds’ motivations: The idea is to become famous through a reputation of extraordinary cruelty and fearless panache.
Actually winning the war seems like less of a priority, at least until British Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) arrives and hatches a plot with the German actress and undercover agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) to blow up a movie theater full of Nazi top brass. Complicating these matters is the fact that the theater’s owner, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), has a similar plan. That’s because Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), a young German war hero, has taken a fancy to her and arranged for a propaganda film about his battlefield valor to premiere in her cinema—and the chief of security for this occasion is Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), also known as “The Jew Hunter,” and the man who murdered Shosanna’s family.
Inglorious Basterds is overwrought with expository contortions. In lieu of strong characterization, it has sadistic suspense, which inevitably peters into its own kind of tedium. But it gets by on typical Tarantino gumption and several magnetic performances—especially from the diabolically charismatic Waltz. Really, the movie is his, although Pitt serves perfectly well as its poster boy. This may be a smug, attractive, violently inclined cartoon, but at least it’s not Serious Holocaust Drama.