And with that, the name and the torch of Django was passed from Franco Nero to Jamie Foxx in a typically indulgent, yet no less welcome, doff of the cap to the original 1966 spaghetti western as the self-confessed king geek of the silver screen once again pours his intrinsic love of cinema into another epic thrill ride. But does it live up to the hype, or is it more a case of blowing smoke than Gunsmoke?
In a word, yes. Django Unchained contains all the stereotypical “trademarks” of the divisive director, the slick dialogue, music and action pieces, along with the ultra-violence that has been prevalent from the early days of Reservoir Dogs and Natural Born Killers, but there is the other side as well, the perfectionist level attention to detail, the adherence to his sensibilities and willingness to tell a great story, yet sensitive to the subject matter and the fact that first and foremost, Tarantino is a massive movie fan.
It would be easy to overlook, or at least downplay the significance of the material here, and Tarantino himself sought advice from Sidney Poitier, essentially the forefather of “Black Cinema” about his hesitancy of dressing black extras as slaves and filming in the south, a taboo and shameful part of American history, and let’s not forget segregation only ended fifty years ago. Tarantino has described how Poitier told him to “Man up,” that everyone knew the film he was making and what it was going to say, and luckily he did, and whilst making a point it doesn’t lose its sense of fun and style. These are qualities that Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of Django has in spades, and whilst the role was supposedly written for Will Smith, it is hard to see anyone else having the same impact in the boots and saddle.
Opening with an impressive visual journey across the states as we follow a chain gang being led from a slave auction, we see straight away the awful reality of slave life, shuffling through the cold land barefoot and shirtless, whip scars large on the backs. Stumbling through the night we are introduced to the scene-stealing star of the movie, Christoph Waltz’s superb Dr King Schulz. Looking for the outlaws known as the Brittle brothers, but not looking what they look like, Schulz purchases Django, and so our odd couple partnership is born, and we learn that it was the Brittle brothers who sent Django to auction as a punishment for trying to escape along with his wife, Broomhilda, sold to the most notorious of plantation owners, Mr Calvin Candie, and so enters Leonardo DiCaprio, a cross between hamming it up and Day-Lewis immersion.
Overall, Django is a masterful cinematic experience that will, in true Tarantino fashion, divide opinion. The sound, both score and songs, is brilliantly eclectic in setting the mood for each scene and the camera is never still, shot on film as the old films were, the sweeping panoramic views and lifelike depiction of the old west owes much to Sergio Corbucci’s original film, and some scenes are direct homage to this cult classic. Already harangued by the media for its over the top brutal violence, there will be some who feel it’s another stylised and visceral joyride from a hack director who can never refuse a poorly acted cameo, yet there are some excellent dialogue scenes between the main characters, and love or loathe Tarantino, he knows how to get the best out of his charges.
Waltz is peerless in his presentation, stealing every scene with his delivery and presence, no mean feat when DiCaprio is equally intense and mesmerising, and whilst not top billed, he gives full gusto to each line. Samuel L Jackson also puts in a masterful portrayal of a cantankerous old housemaster, brittle and cheeky, yet domineering and scary at the same time. Some will feel it a little long and meandering at a weighty 2 hours 45 mins, but fans of the Sergio Leone Dollars films or more recently Red Dead Redemption will love this film, a rollercoaster that leaves an impression as deep as any whip.