This is the face of Jewish vengeance!" cries the heroine of "Inglourious Basterds" to a cinema filled with horrified Nazis. If someone had photographed me at that moment, they would have seen the face of Jewish boredom.
Quentin Tarantino's Second World War extravaganza about a band of Jewish-American commandos bedeviling the German army and a French Jew seeking justice for the Nazi slaughter of her family upsets expectations because it is soporific.
By now it's a given that Tarantino's films are invitations to the Dark Continent of Quentin, a cinema-fed fantasyland in which various tour guides offer self-consciously colorful chatter interrupted by abrupt blasts of action.
But Tarantino's previous outings were rarely as killingly repetitive and arch as "Inglourious Basterds," which fails to wring either black comedy or vengeful thrills from the sight of Jewish soldiers scalping their enemies or their good-old-boy commander, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), carving swastikas on their foreheads. It's so hollow and protracted that it transforms mayhem into monotony.
In one of the movie's mini-fiascoes of bravura provocation, the burly Basterd Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth) beats a captured sergeant to death with a baseball bat for refusing to supply information about German troop positions. Raine jokes to the victim that seeing Donowitz, "the bear Jew," bash out German brains is the closest the Basterds come to "going to the movies." Maybe that's the problem: Tarantino has lived for so long in a celluloid universe that he's lost touch with what "going to the movies" really means to people who have a life outside the movies.
Donowitz's practice of execution-by-baseball-bat is ploddingly outrageous. Tarantino dares the audience to witness a repulsive act, but he doesn't bring it off with the bracing conviction that would cause it to resonate. I was no fan of Brian De Palma's "The Untouchables," but Al Capone's slugger routine in that film brought more bang to the bat than anything in "Inglourious Basterds."
The Basterds commit gory excesses under Raine's explicit orders to strike fear into the hearts of the Nazis, from the lowliest privates to Adolf Hitler. But as the film moves from one interminable set piece to the next, you can't help thinking that Tarantino is merely using the extremity of the action to cover for his own inability to stage a sweeping war scene.
The most effective sequence is virtually bloodless: the interrogation of a French dairy farmer, Perrier Lapadite (Denis Menochet), in his kitchen, while a Jewish family hides under his floorboards. All the tension comes from Menochet's embodiment of growing resignation under the relentless, knowing onslaught of insinuations from S.S. Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), "the Jew Hunter." In a movie that's structured as a series of actors' duels separated by gory calamities, this proves to be the only one with a satisfying build and payoff. For cineastes, that's convenient: If you want to see the best of "Inglourious Basterds," you can leave after 20 minutes and spare yourself two hours and 10 minutes of torture.
Although Tarantino introduces Raine and the Basterds in a scene that's a lift from "The Dirty Dozen," the director rarely allows Pitt to progress beyond the humorous hambone bluster of his opening pep talk to his team. (Although Waltz is skillful as the Jew Hunter - even the nicknames are unimaginative in this movie - he exhausts his bag of tricks in his first scene, too.) Aside from "the bear Jew," no group member displays a gesture or a wrinkle of personality that's remotely memorable.
It's as if between the conception of the film and its completion, Tarantino lost interest in the Basterds and shifted it to Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), who escapes from slaughter in the countryside and finds a new identity running a classy cinema in Paris. Tarantino lays the burden of the melodrama on the crush a German war hero, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), develops for Shosanna. Laurent turns her into a brainy, vibrant figure - definitely crush-worthy - and Zoller's regard catapults her into a position where she can hope to bring down Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth), Hitler (Martin Wuttke) and the Nazi high command in one fell swoop.
Yet even when the film promises to take on this promising new line of attack, Tarantino adds on the dead weight of another subplot involving a British film critic turned officer, Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), and a German movie star turned Allied spy, Bridget von Hammersmarck (Diane Kruger). All the characters are supposed to come together in a fiery climax that, unfortunately, leaves the film in ashes.
Some very clever promoters at the Weinstein Co. or some very gullible journalists have taken the novelty of the Jewish-vengeance angle relatively seriously. Mel Brooks exacted a greater revenge on the Fuhrer with the "Springtime for Hitler" routines in "The Producers" - and Wuttke's impersonation here is just as broad but not nearly as funny as either Dick Shawn's in the original Brooks comedy or Roger Bart's in the musical remake. The only hope for "Inglourious Basterds" is that audiences will embrace it the way the Broadway crowd did "Springtime for Hitler": because it's so bad they think it's good.
MPAA rating: R (for strong graphic violence, language and brief sexuality)
Running time: 2:33 minutes.
Starring Brad Pitt (Lt. Aldo Raine), Melanie Laurent (Shosanna Dreyfus), Christoph Waltz (Col. Hans Landa) and Eli Roth (Sgt. Donny Donowitz).
A Weinstein Co. release. Directed by Quentin Tarantino.