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Movie review: Tarantino jump-starts the Western in 'Django'

Published December 26, 2012 10:52 am

Review • Melding genres again, but with honest emotion.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

"The 'D' is silent," the slave-turned-bounty hunter Django (Jamie Foxx) informs people more than once in "Django Unchained." Of course, this being a Quentin Tarantino movie, it's the only thing that stays quiet in this bombastic and talkative action movie.

As he did with "Inglorious Basterds," Tarantino uses "Django Unchained" to riff on his favorite film genres. This time, it's Westerns (particularly the "spaghetti" variety) and blaxploitation flicks, which Tarantino references with gusto, humor and copious amounts of bloodshed.

When we first meet Foxx's Django, he's a slave in a chain gang being walked across the South. Then along comes a chatty German dentist, King Schmidt (Christoph Waltz), who wants to take Django off the hands of his slave traders — which Schmidt does with a steady stream of witty banter and bullets.

Schmidt, he later tells Django, is a bounty hunter — and he needs Django to identify a nasty trio of brothers that Schmidt seeks to bring in, dead or alive (though dead is easier). Django is attracted to the job: "Killing white folks and getting paid for it? What's not to like?," and soon becomes Schmidt's right-hand man.

But Django has another goal besides money. He aims to free his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who is being held by a nasty Mississippi plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Django and Schmidt devise a scheme to get Broomhilda away from Candie, but carrying it out means going directly into Candie's lair and confronting not only the slaveowner but his sharp-eyed head servant, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).

Tarantino shows signs of maturity in "Django Unchained," more judiciously employing his various tricks — such as anachronistic style choices, a penchant for "shocking" language (air-quotes intended), and winking inside references (here it's an extended cameo by Franco Nero, who played the title character in the 1966 European-made Western "Django").

Tarantino captures the Western feel from the first moments, with sweeping desert vistas and a Spanish-inflected country theme song. But he's not so stuck in the genre that he can't break out rapper Rick Ross or the late Jim Croce's "I Got a Name" where appropriate (and, weirdly enough, both soundtrack choices turn out to be quite appropriate).

Foxx embodies the hero Django with coolness to burn, and Jackson again shows how much he can do with a small role. But the highlight here is Waltz, who exudes the fast-talking charm that won him an Oscar playing a nasty Nazi in "Inglorious Basterds."

Not everything here works perfectly. A comic-relief bit involving hooded racists (led by Don Johnson) falls flat, and some of DiCaprio's histrionics are over the top. But Tarantino provides some meaty emotion in Django's journey from slavery to freedom that makes "Django Unchained" more than just a rummage around the director's really awesome DVD collection.

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'Django Unchained'

Quentin Tarantino pays homage to Westerns and blaxploitation films with this rough-and-tumble story of a slave-turned-bounty hunter.

Where • Theaters everywhere.

When • Opens Tuesday, Dec. 25.

Rating • R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity.

Running time • 166 minutes.