By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
Nobody has giddier fun making movies than Quentin Tarantino, and it's contagious. Even when scenes run long and static, violent spasms intrude or too many characters are introduced, watching a Tarantino flick unfold is one of American cinema's pleasures. You sense him behind the camera, giggling at his handiwork, winking conspiratorially.
No exception is Inglourious Basterds, the neo-grindhouse auteur's rewrite of World War II with a spaghetti western vibe, a bloody valentine to pulp war fiction: vengeance, resistance and a cinephile fantasy that a movie theater could defeat Hitler. It is The Dirty Dozen on crystal meth, Defiance without conscience, presented by a cocksure filmmaker for whom no project is "only a movie."
Even the film's final line — "I think this just might be my masterpiece" — sounds like the writer-director boasting through an actor. Inglourious Basterds doesn't deserve that mantle, but it does reaffirm Tarantino as an audacious dude who'll err, but never on the side of caution.
Divided into five chapters, Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino's most linear work and at times his most static, with rewards. Take the opening sequence, a visit to a French dairy farm by the film's villain, Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, a mesmerizing presence). Landa is known as "the Jew Hunter," with keen instincts to find and kill them.
Landa believes the farmer is hiding a Jewish family, and toys with the man for 15 minutes, just sitting at a table. Tarantino loves writing deadly intimate confrontations — for example, his True Romance faceoff between Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper — with telltale tough talk and violent punctuation. The payoff is usually worth the wait, but Inglourious Basterds contains a handful of such conversations, bloating the 152-minute running time.
The next chapter introduces the titular heroes, a platoon of Jewish-American soldiers assigned to kill as many Nazis as possible. Brad Pitt gets top billing for a supporting role as Lt. Aldo Raine, a Tennessee stud leading the Basterds, demanding 100 Nazi scalps from each soldier. Pitt juts his jaw and drops his "g's" in a cartoon Southern accent, making mutilation sound downright friendly.
Chapter 3 leads to Nazi-occupied Paris, where Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) owns a movie theater showing German propaganda films. Shosanna has a connection to Landa, who'll be ordered to kill the Basterds, who'll plan a war-changing mission at the theater, as Tarantino pulls plot threads together, disregarding history, logic and sometimes good taste. An international cast speaking native languages veers toward authenticity — until a screwy subtitle sneaks in (a German exclaims "Wunderbar!" with an identical translation beneath).
After one viewing — and Tarantino movies demand more — I don't think Chapter 4, detailing a parallel British mission, is necessary at this length. But it does provide another of those extended stretches of quietly delightful tension. Inglourious Basterds will be loved and hated, sometimes in the same scene, eventually leading to at least grudging admiration.
Obsession with film propels Tarantino (and repels his detractors), spilling off the screen whether you get the references or not, from Leni Riefenstahl and Emil Jannings to a German Audie Murphy becoming a movie star. By the time the flammable nature of nitrate film becomes Tarantino's key weapon against tyranny, you can practically hear him cackling. Inglourious Basterds is flawed, yet proves that the former enfant terrible and now Wellesian myth still has impudence to burn.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.