Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 spaghetti western, “Django”, is legendary as the film that launched 100 unofficial sequels. This is obvious hyperbole and urban legend—to date only 30-something are accounted for—but it still spawned a crap load of badass westerns. These movies run the gamut from trying to recreate the grim tone and setting of the original, to offerings like “Sukiyaki Western Django”, Takeshi Miike’s manic mod take on two feuding frontier clans.
The latest, and highest profile installment, Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained”, falls somewhere in between. Set in 1858, a few years before the Civil War, Tarantino’s second consecutive dive into historical waters presents a grim, stoic bounty hunter, but also uses the writer/director’s trademark quick, witty banter to skewer one of America’s darker chapters: slavery. The film juxtaposes the past with the modern. Setting, costumes, and story all scream old timey, though the music, personality, and general feel fall squarely in the contemporary. When Samuel L. Jackson’s Uncle Tom slave, Stephen, shows up, if you closed your eyes, you’d think you were watching something set this week. And at least one of the slaves in the atrocious “Mandingo fights” is schooled in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
While there are certainly moments that make audiences squirm in their seats, “Django Unchained” is also a ton of fun, probably the most fun you’ll ever have watching a slavery revenge-fantasy western. One of the first images you see is a gnarled bare back, criss-crossed by wounds, a veritable latticework of whip scars. And if you’re sensitive to the N’bomb, this might not be the movie for you. That bad boy is everywhere. Still, the raucous humor goes a long way towards making the “peculiar institution” out to be just as absurd and morally repellant as it was.
Tarantino’s other primary trademark, frantic bursts of extreme violence, is also on full display in “Django Unchained”. A traveling dentist, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), has discovered that bounty hunting is more profitable than championing oral hygiene. So he teams up with a freed slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), who has knowledge of a particular set of outlaws the good doctor is after. The two hit is off from the get go, Shultz takes Django under his wing, and once they complete their mission, Schultz agrees to help Django rescue his wife, Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington). He’d walk through hellfire for her, because she’s worth it. Tarantino has said, perhaps seriously, that Django and Broomhilda are distant ancestors of John Shaft, of “Shaft” fame.
The name “Django” might be in the title, but the movie really belongs to Schultz, at least early portions. While Foxx’s Django is quiet and brooding, with a penchant for spontaneous bursts of aggression, Waltz’s dentist is a fast-talking strategist. Who else can talk his way off a grim southern plantation where a freed slave has seemingly just murdered three white men? Whip smart, and just as devious, Shultz helps track Broomhilda to the notorious plantation Candyland, presided over by the nefarious dastard, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who pits his slaves against each other in death matches for his own amusement. He’s also a Francophile that doesn’t speak a word of French, and a hideous human being.
Long-winded at times—there are number of exchanges and asides that are fun, but could have been cut out—and unfocused in the middle, this is easily one of Tarantino’s most straightforward narratives to date. Aside from a small handful of brief flashbacks for dramatic effect, the story starts at point A and moves forward in a direct, linear fashion, using none of the looping, shuffled plots he favors.
For all the energy and laughs in “Django Unchained”, the movie is steeped in the savagery of the time. Even Shultz, a man who has seen some serious shit in his travels, witnesses some things he can’t unsee, things that haunt him. As brutal as he can be at times—like telling Django to shoot a man in front of his son—he is also given to great bouts of sentimentality. Though he finds slavery a confusing, ugly endeavor, as he tells his companion, they’re going to have to get dirty to pull off their elaborate ruse. It all leads to one of the bloodiest climaxes you’ve ever seen—think a cowboy version of the nightclub scene in “Kill Bill Volume 1” and you’ve got a good idea.
In the end, Tarantino accomplishes what he set out to do, make a fun, violent, badass spaghetti western. He brings together the classic aesthetics of the genre, with his modern, pop culture saturated sensibilities, and his whip smart dialogue. You can’t have a Tarantino movie without a ton of cameos, so keep an eye out for Don Johnson, Jonah Hill, Walton Goggins, James Remar and even Franco Nero, the original Django. The result is not for the faint of heart, but even as over the top and gratuitous as “Django Unchained” can be, everyone involved certainly looks to be having an absolute blast, a feeling that transmits to the audience. And if this rescue/revenge fantasy, this skewering of the myth of the antebellum south, just so happens to have a point, so be it.