Quentin Tarantino's long gestated World War Two film begins with a title sequence showcasing all the title fonts of the director's previous films and finishes with a final line of such pomposity it angers more than entertains. These two factors mark not only the larger problems of Inglourious Basterds but of its creator's stifling nature that has continued to grow increasingly problematic over each recent film. Inglourious Basterds shows Tarantino at his most impressive, at times reminding of the excitement and mastery of his 90s output. But it also sees him at his most senseless, marking a film of great promise that ultimately boils down to a series of well executed set pieces but never a competent whole. Tarantino's over confidence has his film sacrifice both body and soul.
The films tells of two separate converging stories to assassinate the Nazi high command (including Hitler himself) while attending a Parisian film premiere. The first two of the film's five chapters introduces these plots; the first sees Colonel Hans Landa (aka The Jew Hunter) arrive at a French rural farmhouse, the year is 1941 and as Landa 'interrogates' the proprietor over a missing local Jewish family a seemingly polite conversation slips onto horrific terrain. This opening sees Tarantino at the height of his powers and in complete control as he creates an airtight suffocating piece of suspense full of passive aggression and double meanings. Col. Landa is a bloodhound with a diplomatic exterior and this introduction sets him up beautifully as a master manipulator always a step ahead of his prey. As the missing family are revealed to be harboured under the farmhouse floorboards tension mounts to unbearably levels and a massacre falls upon the trapped souls save for a young girl who flees the bloodbath.
The second chapter sets up the titular characters of The Basterds, a group of Jewish American soldiers led by Brad Pitt's Lt. Aldo Raine. Their mission in occupied France is to collect the scalps of any Nazis that come into their sights, leaving one alive each time to tell of the horror and spread fear throughout the ranks. This is familiar to the motives of Mickey and Malory from the Tarantino penned Natural Born Killers (1995), but as their actions had context in that film's representation of media fuelled violence here it seems unnecessary. As the Basterds offer little else themselves throughout they too feel uncomfortably irrelevant in the grand view of things.
The introduction of Raine's group of bloody GI's sits awkwardly next to the sublime execution of the opening scene. Whereas Kill Bill had a guilty sense of joy in its erratic nature and quick gear shifts between genre, Tarantino applies the same mode of storytelling again with diminishing results. This second chapter hops between time frames from Raine's modus operandi to the aftermath of their myth making actions. From the office of Hitler as he tantrums, to the Basterds in action performing the very torture described to him by a low ranking soldier. Even in all this impressive non-linear set-up Tarantino divulges further in a backstory segment of a defecting Nazi named Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger) who has now joined the Basterds in their tirade. This segment is bizarrely narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and complete with cartoon like title graphics introducing the character. At this point it's hard to believe we're still in the same film as Tarantino shows off all his toys in one unnecessary flurry. The casting of fellow director Eli Roth is another misfire, despite his intimidating and fitting psychical prowess he doesn't deliver an ounce of screen presence appearing like a fish out of water.
In 1944 we're reintroduced to the girl who escaped the farmhouse slaughter. Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) is living her new life quite comfortably until she attracts the attention of German war hero Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brulh) who likes both her and the cinema she runs. After her attempts to avoid him she only increases his infatuation which leads to a forced luncheon with Joseph Goebbels, the head of Nazi propaganda, where they discuss the possibility of Shosanna's cinema holding a premiere for a film dramatizing Zoller's war efforts.
Later in the scene Shosanna comes face to face with Col. Landa, her family's executioner. The scene is unbearably tense once again featuring the same mode of passive aggression and riddled semantics. It's also the point in the film where it's clear where the real story lies, the film's heart truly beats when either Shosanna or Landa are on screen. It's therefore a shame that the film continues to cave in on itself as Tarantino brings together two plot threads. British intelligence learns that a Nazi premiere containing the high command will be held at a low key cinema and forge a plan to get inside and blow it up, little realising that Shosanna is preparing to do the very same.
As the Basterds rendezvous with a British/German lieutenant and film-critic played by a wonderfully encapsulating Michael Fassbender, who in turn rendezvous with a German actress/spy (Dianne Kruger) the film burdens a severe weight as their simple plan turns into a deadly game of wits in a Basement Tavern. The scene is another example of Tarantino pushing his talents to the limit as this 20 minute nail-biter is utterly compelling; Inglourious Basterds may not feature any actual scenes of war but it contains a war of words that's just as riveting. The scene is meticulously designed and is a true masterclass in suspense, however its placement only further suffocates a film that hasn't, even at the halfway line, gotten off the ground. At this point the film has gorged itself into an unmanageable mess. There is much to be admired but it's clear that Tarantino is pulling off cinematic fireworks simply because he can rather than actually needing to.
In the final run as Shosanna's cinema loans itself to the showdown between all parties involved it's most evident in Tarantino's indecisiveness in how to rap up his tale, giving way to unforgivable inconsistencies and like the film as a whole is an awkward tonal mess. It also features Tarantino taking history into his own hands, a move that will surely split any viewer with its audacity.
There are plenty of aspects to admire in Inglourious Basterds; Robert Richardson's photography is as richly impressive as ever, from the open vistas of the rural opening to the dingy noirish shadows of the tavern shootout. Just as we've come to expect from a Tarantino film there are also more than enough memorable performances, most notably from Christoph Waltz as the villainous Hans Landa, a creation that may well be the director's best. There are also moments such as Shosanna preparing for the opening gala; a marvellous montage set to David Bowie's 'Putting Out The Fire', another example of audacity but one that works and reminds of just how untouchable Tarantino can be when he gets it right. It's just shame he doesn't reel in his indulgent urges for the most part because if he had I sense he could have produced a truly great film instead of the overcooked piece we're left with, charred on the outside but remaining doughy at the core.