By Forrest Hartman
3½ stars (out of four)
Rated R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand
Writer-director Quentin Tarantino has always remembered one critical thing about movies: Even those that make social statements can be fun. His adherence to this philosophy has provided filmgoers with hours of gory goodness, yet his movies always seem more substantial and slick than the genre films that inspire him.
“Django Unchained” is a perfect example of the phenomenon. On it’s surface, the movie is a basic spaghetti western built on unlikely plotting and characters. Tarantino even uses old-school title sequences, like those from the “Grindhouse” project that he and Robert Rodriguez produced. These obvious nods to B cinema are exactly the things that make the movie so enjoyable because Tarantino is a master at walking the line between satire and drama.
He embraces outrageous plotting and regularly sacrifices subtlety for graphic violence and language, yet he always stops short of the inane. What sets most Tarantino movies apart is the characters that the man and his actors bring to life. Tarantino writes great dialogue, and he’s equally good at finding the right performers to deliver it. On screen, the result is a fireworks show that’s hard to resist.
The title character in “Django” is a slave who is cruelly separated from his wife in the days leading up to the American Civil War. Things look bleak as the film begins, with the chained and badly beaten Django (Jamie Foxx) at the mercy of southern slave traders. His luck changes when a bounty hunter named King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) makes him a free man. The only catch is that Django has to help locate King’s next bounty.
Django happens to be a crack shot, and he and King hit it off, so the two men continue working together. Eventually, King even volunteers to help Django locate his missing wife (Kerry Washington).
Waltz and Foxx are fantastic, and they give their alter egos the sort of larger-than-life presence required of genre-movie heroes. What’s more, they run into a number of equally fascinating persons during their journey. Highlights include Leonardo DiCaprio as a callous plantation owner named Calvin Candie and Samuel L. Jackson as a subservient black man willing to betray his own race.
The plotting for “Django” is frequently unrealistic, and the ending is particularly unlikely. Still, it’s easy to enjoy the wild ride that Tarantino delivers. Even better, he serves it up while making a statement about the insidiousness of the U.S. slave trade. Many directors favor style over substance, but Tarantino deftly mixes the two. “Django” is stylized enough for film lovers to identify as Tarantino’s, but it also has depth. Because of that, it was nominated for five Academy Awards, and it walked away with two: best supporting actor for Waltz and best original screenplay for Tarantino.
“Django Unchained” is available as a digital rental and download, but several retailers are attempting to persuade fans into a DVD or Blu-ray purchase. For instance, Target is selling the film with exclusive Steelbook packaging and an extra disc containing footage of the stars at Comic-Con. Meanwhile, Best Buy has an exclusive Django on Tour feature with its release, and Wal-Mart has an exclusive making-of documentary.