Whether delving into history and ambitiously rewriting certain portions to slightly exaggerated levels in his spaghetti-western signature style, or exploring the underground violent world of vengeful crime, drugs, hitmen, and beautifully obnoxious green, Quentin Tarantino has made a prestigious name for himself if even somewhat recently in 1992 with the low-budget classic ‘Reservoir Dogs.’ In terms of American film-making, although Tarantino is just reaching his middle-age level as a director, he still has garnered just as much respect and admiration as those working in the business for many of our entire lifetimes, such as your Spielbergs, Scorseses, Coppollas, and Kubricks. But whatever his age, the movie going public is now becoming aware that when we see a new film advertised with the tag “Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino,” we know to expect intensity, creativity, ambition, and zero apologies. In comes his newest work, Django Unchained, a bloody and historic period piece western that again provides us with a fully entertaining and well directed epic containing most of the things we know to expect from Tarantino, if missing some factors that fans will noticeably pick out and probably come to miss.
Unchained tells a fairly simple story of a slave named Django (played well enough by Jaime Fox, more on his performance in a bit) in the 1858 American south just before the Civil War, and the love story with the wife Broomhilda whom he became separated from due to the circumstances of their oppressed lives. Django is picked up in our first scene by a traveling bounty hunter named Dr. King Shultz, played once again spectacularly by Christoph Waltz. When Shultz takes down the slave hoarders carrying the small group and partners with Django, he does so motivated not only for his need for a partner, but also his hatred for slavery in general. Why a distinguished white man in the southern 1800s hates slavery to such a degree is never elaborated, the story paces fast enough so it’s never a deterring aspect. The two go on several bounty missions before Shultz agrees to aid Django to track and retrieve his lost wife, for which would never be able to be done if not for Shultz’s slick and uber-confident persuasive demeanor, very similar to his character in Tarantino’s previous masterpiece, Inglorious Bastards. This character introduction to Shultz may seem pretty far-fetched at first, but in time one will realize that it all flows perfectly with the Tarantino love for such exaggerated and entertainingly charming manipulators that he has presented in almost, if not all, of his films, complete with some of the elongated and intriguing dialogue fans have come to admire. The story in Unchained soon then reveals its complete intentions rather quickly, and the remaining two hours has the two tracking other bounty jobs, visiting wealthy plantations through manipulation, as a black freeman would never be believable to southern white men, and even has Django taking on a few vengeful kills of his own due to those white slave owners who have wronged him and his wife in the past. Things eventually climax with the two protagonists heading to a large and affluent property nicknamed ‘Candyland’ owned by Calvin Candie, a wealthy slave owner who makes his business by purchasing and betting on slaves who are forced into dogfights to the death with other shameless slave owners. Candie is played by Leonardo Dicaprio, who despite putting on a solid performance, does not seem to get as much intense dialogue or character arc as one would wish considering how impressively stellar of an actor the former Titanic heartthrob has matured to become. Perhaps needless to state to fans, the final half-hour is the most grippingly violent in the whole film, full of the genuine weaponry, harsh language, dramatic slow-mo shots, and splashing bloodshed we expect from a Tarantino popcorn flick. And really, a popcorn flick this winds up being in the end.
While Unchained received plenty of publicity stating how overly violent and possibly offensive it may be, it should be told that other films in the past have already put on much more extreme content than Unchained has, those more serious period pieces on black slavery. The “N” expletive is said a good handful of times, yes, mostly by white characters, but is nowhere near the abundance that has been reported by the American media that seems to be becoming more sensitive by the year. While Tarantino certainly makes no apologies about the film’s content, there is nothing offensive in the film despite this being another exaggerated, albeit entertaining, live action cartoon Quentin has become so brilliant at directing. Though, a few instances may be more disturbing than anything else, such as scenes of genuine slave abuse, such as whippings, beatings, and even one scene where a crying slave man is chewed apart by fierce dogs, surrounded by the laughter and enjoyment of hillbilly white trash. Yet, things are edited enough to where some more extreme fanatics will wonder why more is not shown… perhaps for reasons of keeping this from an X-rating. Fans will feel mostly at home here, but to some slight hairs of disappointment, a few instances of Tarantino staples exist that one can’t help feel are a bit weaker here, and would have potentially upped the film from just an entertaining popcorn flick, to an entertaining popcorn flick that will keep people talking for years to come. These are the memorable case with his older works, specifically films like Pulp Fiction, the Kill Bill series and Inglorious Bastards. One must remember that Unchained is not trying to teach a lesson on black history or make a statement on racism, but only uses these factors to tell the story it wants to. Now while not all of his films need to follow the spaghetti western genre that Tarantino pretty much single-handedly invented himself, Unchained provides only hints of it in quick zoom shots, shaky cam, and over-saturated color stained flashbacks, with the remainder of the film using your standard wide and standard shots. Point being, that for something to hold the cartoon-like presentation, especially in the gun fights, that we know from the director, yet not follow up further in his signature visual ecstasy trips, gives the whole of the film the feeling of something missing. As fans will remember, the pre-spaghetti style of Tarantino films such as Jackie Brown and Pulp Fiction did not have these trippy visuals, but were presented in a more serious tone, and things did not feel as out of place because there was not the same portions of directorial unevenness we have with Unchained. While this setback does not go near detracting from the story we are intended, it does take the viewer out of the fuller experience at certain points, limiting its memorability.
As mentioned earlier, Tarantino’s knack for smart and intricate dialogue has worked as an almost unconscious subtle ticket to granting his films the unique nature of being entertainingly intriguing without anything physical happening besides two characters talking in front of a static shot camera. In Unchained, this happens too few and far between, and just like the snarky spaghetti acid trips, are merely hinted at, beginning to steadily building momentum to being halted before they bloom into the full life fans are so accustomed to. And this is not a mere idea that has come to being in only Tarantino’s recent works, but stem from his very first opening scene in 1992’s ‘Dogs.’ I can’t imagine Tarantino is running dry on ideas, but perhaps with a bit more time the script could have been fleshed out to a fuller degree, instead of giving us a few choice scenes scattered in Unchained that could have easily been left on the editorial floor. Now, the final gripe I hold with Unchained is with Jaime Fox himself. While the press has hailed him as a true leader of the show, the real credit must more go to Christoph Waltz, who engulfs every scene he encounters, overcoming every other actor on screen. Fox though, either is given too many flat lines or just presents them flatly, coming off as someone who is unarguably a strong and ballsy slave, but a bit unrealistically intelligent granted his societal status; this causes his lines walk a tight rope of trying to convince us with an uneducated and unsure fish out of water and a fearless warrior who is completely sure of all his intentions. The good news here is that this uneven character presentation is soon alleviated by the fact that Django does grow and actually becomes a heroic warrior positive of his intentions. Once this happens, he does suit to further likability, even if the majority of his performance does feel somewhat underwhelming; still, there is no other viable actor with the age and physical ability working in Hollywood that could have fulfilled this role besides Fox. In a separate issue entirely, the fact that we don’t have enough available black actors in Hollywood with the abundance of white actors of choice is hopefully something that will eventually change.
Yet even with a few glitches, Unchained never bores, and even at its 165-minute running length, overstaying its welcome is not an issue. To elaborate on the previous point, more complex dialogue could simply have been traded in for some other scenes, not that the entirely of the film should have been cut shorter. The positives here undoubtedly outweigh the setbacks, and Unchained can proudly still stand in the same line as its rebellious and outspoken predecessors, even if its overall ambition and imagination may not reach the same heights.
It should be noted that as of now there are four available blu-ray version of Unchained available; the Target, Best Buy, Wal-mart and standard versions. Each retail store special edition contains different extra content on a separate bonus disc. The version I am reviewing here is the Best Buy special edition, which brings an extra disc of a press conference interview with a panel of all the Unchained actors, including Tarantino himself, and even two other actors with such smaller roles that one wonders why they even got invited. The info from these actors is a fun and informative extra for fans. This disc only has this feature recorded on it, so there are no menus, and ends very abruptly, which should be expected considering it is simply there as a promo disc in order for the retailer to garner more attention; therefore it is not in HD form but just a regular DVD. The standard blu-ray disc extras include three fairly brief behing-the-scenes making of featurettes, which give us the general info on editing and costume design, plus previews of the film’s soundtrack as well as the new 8-disc Tarantino collection compilation. The Target edition has a steelbook package, as well as its own extra disc entitled “The Stars of Django Unchained Unleashed at Comic-Con 2012.” While I have not yet opened the steelbook package, I can only predict that this is most likely another DVD disc with perhaps just another discussion panel with some of the film’s cast.
Graphics and Sound:
Unchained looks like your standard blu-ray quality film, and clean enough even if colors are not as vivid as more impressive looking transfers go, but that is perhaps something that helps the film considering that it is meant to have a certain dirty look that is all the more fitting for a western, especially a Tarantino one. Sound-wise things are slightly more flat than one could want, despite the fact that general volume is full enough and dialogue is crystal clear. Action scenes are perhaps not as bombastically effective as it could’ve been, these being in the gun fights especially. The soundtrack has a satisfying, if also a bit underwhelming mix of contemporary rap and more traditional Cash-style melodic gloom; the production in sound could have benefited from the score being more pronounced than it is. Overall, picture and sound is no Lord of the Rings or Life of Pi, but attains a good standard that does its job and won’t disappoint purists.
Unchained may not be the most complex or memorable of Tarantino films, and does not reach levels of imagination and aspiration that other works have, but it is still a fully entertaining film with a story that is straightforward and attainable enough for even a contemporary non-Tarantino familiar audience to enjoy, without even a minute of slow down or boredom. New characters constantly refresh the story with charming and relevant performances throughout. Even if the historic aspects do not provide any statements on violent natures of humanity or racial discrimination, it never intends to, and must be taken on the degree it presents and intentions it warrants, and to that it succeeds. So grab your soda and popcorn, sit back and enjoy all the unique staples of such a deserving and respected director, even if for more hardcore fans the staples don’t hold as strong as they remember.
I give Django Unchained 3 revolver twirls out of 4.