Warning: Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” uses the bad “N” word. According to Variety, there are at least 109 instances of the word used in the film.
It has caused director Spike Lee to reignite an old feud with Tarantino, tweeting this week that “American slavery was not a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. It was a Holocaust.”
Upon entering the Warren Theatre, where I saw the film, there were even signs posted warning that the film has offensive language.
But does the language overshadow the film? Yes and no.
If taken in the context that in that era, before the Civil War, slavery was common and the word probably was used even more commonly, then no. But Tarantino seems to use it not for historical effect, but because he can. It’s used so much that it lacks any impact, other than being annoying. And, yes, that becomes distracting.
But while Tarantino’s last outing, the stellar “Inglourious Basterds,” was a revenge fantasy that played with history by annihilating Nazis, “Django Unchained” becomes a sort of revenge tale of a former slave, the titular Django (Jamie Foxx).
We are introduced to him when Dr. Schultz (a pitch-perfect Christoph Waltz from “Basterds”), a former dentist who travels with a giant molar on top of his stagecoach, stops a gang of slaves and their masters in the middle of the night.
Schultz demands to buy Django, and when the owners refuse, Schultz takes matters into his own hands by shooting them. But, being an honorable businessman, he still leaves the money for the transaction.
Schultz later explains to Django that he is now a bounty hunter, and needs important information from him. He’s on the hunt for some particularly nasty wanted-dead-or-alive men, but he doesn’t know what they look like. Django does. He tells Django that if he helps him find the men, Schultz will grant him his freedom in exchange. Django agrees.
After they capture and kill the bad guys, Schultz offers to make Django a partner in his bounty hunter business. But now a free man, Django only wants to find his wife, who has been sold to a smarmy plantation owner.
Later ( much later), their search leads to a plantation owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who prefers to go by Monsieur Candie, even though he doesn’t speak French, and whose favorite pastime is watching Mandingo slaves battle to the death.
Schultz and Django devise a scheme to go undercover and pose as men wanting to buy fighting slaves. But things get complicated when a too-loyal house slave (a funny, typically over-the-top Samuel L. Jackson) recognizes there might be ulterior motives.
The film in general is about 45 minutes too long, and lacks urgency in the first two acts. Things really pick up, though, when the action moves to Candie’s plantation.
And Tarantino mostly ditches the sophistication so on display in “Inglourious” to get back to his pulpy, “Grindhouse” roots, with mixed results. “Django” certainly lacks the seething tension that permeated “Inglourious.”
It’s more interested in bloody shoot-outs, some of which are inspired, but mostly stuff we’ve seen from Tarantino.
But why base the story in slavery if you don’t have anything new to say about it? Yes, we know slaves were treated horrifically, the same way Jews were treated by Nazis. But “Inglourious” presented its villains as comically clueless and incompetent, something we’d like to believe. In “Django,” the slave owners are merely ignorant without knowing it. What’s the fun in killing a villain who isn’t evil?
To be sure, there are moments when Tarantino flirts with social commentary. But then he ditches it for another grand shoot-out.
He attempts to pay homage to “blaxploitation” films of the ’70s, but focuses too much on “exploit.”