**1/2 (out of four)
I couldn’t listen to writer-director Quentin Tarantino talk for an especially long time, but the guy’s got a remarkable knack for dialogue. His characters, and the highly cinematic scenes he creates for them, command the screen. He’s always a talent, no matter the product.
That’s a nice way of saying Tarantino’s latest exploitation flick, “Django Unchained,” like Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic,” does more of what the filmmaker does well while suggesting he can probably cool it with his preferred style and themes. For Tarantino it’s revenge, and following the World War II revenge fantasy “Inglourious Basterds,” he’s cooked up another doozy underscored by the painful memories of history: In 1858 Texas, one minute Django (Jamie Foxx) walks in chains, connected to other slaves. The next minute Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, who won an Oscar for “Basterds”) springs Django to help him identify a trio of brothers that Schultz, a former dentist working as a bounty hunter, will be paid handsomely to bring in. That he can collect his human targets dead or alive presents a flexible legal boundary Schultz does not hesitate to acknowledge.
For about 165 minutes, “Django Unchained” engages Tarantino’s distinctive voice while occasionally embracing something bigger than entertainment. Early on, Schultz recognizes his own hypocrisy in capitalizing on the slavery he opposes. Later, when Schultz and Django’s search for Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), brings them to the plantation of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), Tarantino cleverly plays on the slave owner’s ignorance. The man behind “Pulp Fiction” and “Kill Bill” is both funny and smart, and he’d probably be the first one to tell you so.
That said, presenting pre-Civil War Southerners as cartoonish racists takes roughly no knowledge or daring, and “Django Unchained” lacks tightness and forward momentum as revenge again becomes a dish best served bloodily. Waltz, Foxx and DiCaprio are all very good—though DiCaprio’s not so great as to deserve the best supporting actor Oscar some already have awarded him.
The movie itself sprawls and doesn’t always fascinate (why distract people by casting Jonah Hill in a meaningless part?), but the words and details crackle with someone skilled tending the fire.
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