It's a pity, but the first absolutely essential film release of 2013 (Gangster Squad emphatically was never a must-see) sadly turns out to be something of a disappointment. Maybe it was too much to hope that it would be as good as Inglourious Basterds or as much fun as the first Kill Bill movie, but while it's got the usual Quentin Tarantino virtues, including the visceral violence and the effortlessly smart and quotable dialogue, the end result is, by his standards, good, very good in spots, but not great. Is it because he's tackling heavyweight subject matter (slavery and racism) for the first time rather than merely riffing on kungfu and grindhouse movies - that this is a film about something other than cinema? Like Spielberg, maybe his best films are when he's having fun rather than trying to be serious: Schindler's List may be staggeringly well made, but I'd never choose it over Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom.
Django Unchained has nothing to do with the 1967 spaghetti Western Django (despite a cameo injoke from Franco Nero) any more than it has to do with Takashi 'Batshit' Miike's Sukiyaki Western Django (which has an appearance by Tarantino). It's still got much of the spaghetti Western feel, helped by generous helpings of Ennio Morricone and Luis Bacalov on the soundtrack, including the latter's Django score, but it's really a racesploitation revenge movie, as freed slave turned bounty hunter Django (Jamie Foxx), accompanied by his new owner-cum-partner Schultz (Christoph Waltz), seeks his still-shackled wife, now the property of flamboyant Southern plantation owner Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, on absolute fire). His quest is hampered by Candie's head slave Stephen (Samuel L Jackson in a genuinely shocking Uncle Tom role)....
Much has been made of the liberal use of the N-word, and it's certainly spread uncomfortably thick throughout the whole movie, but it's absolutely in context in a film about pre-Civil War slavery populated by ignorant and sadistic white racists. Obviously the same frequency of the same epithet would be out of place in a James Bond or a Lord Of The Rings, but to have deleted it from Django Unchained on the grounds of 21st century taste would be dishonest, and even more offensive. The BBFC passed it at 18 for "strong bloody violence" (amusingly ignoring the swearing and full-on racist language), and there's certainly plenty of that: shootouts result in satisfying spurts of blood rather than discreet little wounds, a man is ripped apart by dogs and two slaves fight each other in mortal, eye-gouging combat.
I've always liked Tarantino's dialogue skills, though sometimes (as with Death Proof) there's just too much of the damned stuff. Here there's not only the smart backchat and slick one-liners but some nice character material, from Schultz telling Django the German legend of Brunhilde (Django's wife is named Broomhilda) to the big shootout being triggered by Candie's demand for a handshake. One scene that doesn't really work feels like a sudden sidestep into TV sketch show territory as a lynch mob of idiot Klansmen find they can't see out of their hastily devised masks: yes, it makes the Klan look thunderously stupid (hardly difficult) but you almost expect there to be a laugh track on top of it. It's not that the scene isn't funny, rather that the obvious comedy doesn't seem to fit with the rest of the movie.
Anything by Tarantino is automatically vital for any self-respecting movie nerd/geek and there are, as usual, familiar faces in the cast to spot: Tom Savini, Zoe Bell and Robert Carradine show up in tiny roles, Bruce Dern has a brief bit, John Jarratt and Michael Parks turn up towards the end along with Tarantino himself having a go at an Australian accent! Also nice to see an old Columbia logo at the start! But despite all the geeky touches, Django Unchained is too long, and while there's some terrific stuff in there it has surprisingly little tension and in the end I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as Inglourious Basterds, which I do think is his best film. And while on one level it's a pity that the IMDb lists his next project as Kill Bill Vol 3 because he's obviously capable of so much better than pastiching trashy 70s cinema, on another level that's going to be more fun because that's where Tarantino's heart truly lies. It's certainly worth seeing, but it's unfortunately not a great film.