For all his abilities as a pop artist, director Quentin Tarantino rarely seems to grasp that stories are about people, not just cinematic archetypes. He's a gifted formalist rather than a humanist, which is why his movies often carry substantial cinematic weight — but often seem to lack an equal moral substance.
So it is with Mr. Tarantino's latest movie, the freed-slave revenge story "Django Unchained." Like his past few films — "Kill Bill," "Death Proof" and "Inglourious Basterds" — "Django" is another bloody tale of repression, empowerment and revenge. And like those earlier films, it's also a knowing cinematic pastiche, drawing on the director's encyclopedic knowledge of genre film history — in this case, a mix of blaxploitation, pulp slavery tales and spaghetti Westerns.
The movie takes place in the old South just a few years before the Civil War. Our heroes are Django (Jamie Foxx), a former slave, and Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a charming but deadly dentist-turned-bounty-hunter. But they aren't just heroes; they are avatars of movie cool. We know from the get-go Schultz is cool because of the funny, wordy, clever and stylishly violent way he frees Django from a troop of belligerent slavers. We know Django is cool because of the way he carries himself, and because of the elegantly violent skills he reveals as he teams up with Schultz.
But cool cannot prove itself without someone to face down. And who better than someone who thinks he is cool but isn't? That would be Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a notoriously brutal plantation owner who happens to be holding Django's long-lost wife, Broomhild (Kerry Washington).
Mr. Tarantino spends much of the movie demonstrating the depth of Candie's evil and tastelessness, mostly by showing the way he treats his slaves. It's an effective and gripping way to set an audience up for revenge, but it also comes across as a tad overeager. Mr. Tarantino often seems to enjoy exposing viewers to the pulpy horrors he's dreamed up as much as he does delivering the inevitable righteous comeuppance. The cartoonish, over-the-top quality of the violence softens the impact somewhat, but also reinforces the movie's distance from the historical horrors it relies upon for its thrills.
There's no question that "Django Unchained" is exciting, engaging, entertaining and, yes, pretty cool. But the question Mr. Tarantino never seems to have grappled with is whether being cool is really enough.
TITLE: "Django Unchained"
CREDITS: Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
RATING: R for over the top violence, sexuality, language
RUNNING TIME: 165 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS