[Related story: Tarantino's Rom-com confession]
As you might expect, this isn’t your average cowboy film. It might be littered with nods and winks to the classics, but you’ll find them hiding amongst the usual grab-bag of pop, punk and pulp references. Take the score (a jarring mix of Ennio Morricone, Funk, Folk and Hip Hop) or the character names (‘Broomhilda von Shaft’, a reference both to Wagner and Richard Roundtree) - make no mistake, this is the Old West of a smug, channel-hopping movie nerd, not of 19th century America.
Rescued from slavery by a bounty hunter who needs his help, Django (Jamie Foxx) becomes a willing apprentice to Dr Schultz (Christoph Waltz) – learning the gun-slinging skills he needs to rescue his wife and exact bloody revenge on the people that took her away. Cutting a swathe of violence through the Southern States, Django’s quest eventually leads him to ‘Candyland’ – home to Leonardo DiCaprio’s brutal plantation owner and prison to his enslaved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Essentially the same story Tarantino has been telling for years, he finally finds a comfortable fit for his revenger operatics in the fairytale clichés of Hollywood’s oldest genre.
Foxx is fine as the film’s titular hero, but he’s overshadowed by two towering performances from Waltz and DiCaprio – one a cheery, mild-mannered assassin, the other a snarling, sadistic Southern gent. Once again though, it’s Tarantino’s quickdraw dialogue that proves the real star – with one hilarious Ku Klux Klan scene even outdoing 'Blazing Saddles'.
Framed around the very real (and very uncool) horrors of slavery, the film arguably contains Tarantino’s most violent scene as two men beat each other to death in a drawing room filled with braying gentry. Elsewhere, the stylised shoot-outs are comically bloody - with heads exploding like watermelons in a gratuitous, slow-motion finale that makes 'The Wild Bunch' (and 'Inglourious Basterds') look tame.
'Django Unchained' is Tarantino at his most mature – lovingly crafting a beautifully shot, cine-literate landscape peopled with characters we genuinely care about – without sacrificing his schoolboy love of stylish, macho ultra-violence.
The only problem is, nobody has dared to say ‘no’ to Tarantino for years. At nearly three hours long, the film feels stretched, with some scenes (including the director’s own dreadful cameo as an Australian/South African/Cockney hick) feeling like DVD extras at best. Overindulgence aside, we haven’t seen this bold a vision of cinema’s Wild West since Sergio Leone’s 'Dollar’s' trilogy, and we haven’t seen this accomplished a film from Tarantino since 'Pulp Fiction'. Striking, stirring and frequently savage… It also looks very, very cool.