There are few directors in the world today, or even ever, whose name carries with it instantly recognisable traits that have people eagerly awaiting their next film, or even applying the name to films the filmmaker had nothing to do with but are stylistically similar. So when a new “Tarantino” film bursts onto the scene there is an extremely high level of expectation that goes with it, both in terms of its quality and its style. And with that expectation Django Unchained ticks the boxes. Punchy dialogue? Tick. Brutal violence? A blood dripping tick. Being completely badass? Tick. Balls to the wall fun? Tick. Being a highlight in an impressive catalogue of films? Not so much.
Perhaps it’s coming off the back of the alarmingly impressive Inglorious Basterds, but Django Unchained never manages to go past being a Tarantino film and an exercise in gleeful bloodlust. That’s not to say the journey isn’t a heck load of fun. There’s a sadistic truth in Jamie Foxx’s Django announcing “Kill white people and get paid for it? What’s not to like?”, at least from an audience point of view. Is it wrong to laugh at a racist have their head comically blown off? Anyone who says yes to that probably won’t be a Tarantino fan anyway, but for the rest of us we can rub our hands together and grin with the enthusiasm of an eight-year old watching Elmer Fudd swallow a stick of dynamite.
As the title Django, Jamie Foxx, is very early “unchained” from slavery by Dr King Schultz, played by Inglorious Basterds-scene stealer Christoph Waltz. It’s no different here, Waltz steals the whole film as a bounty hunter who takes Django under his wing and accompanies him on his mission to rescue his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). The biggest obstacle in her rescue is the salacious Calvin Candie, an out of type cast Leonardo DiCaprio, who treats the slaves like the dirt of the cotton fields he oversees. DiCaprio oddly suit Candie’s eccentricities as well as his cruelty, making DiCaprio’s first supporting performance in more than a decade one of his best. Unfortunately for him, Waltz has deservedly stolen all the thunder. Samuel L. Jackson as Candie’s fiercely loyal right-hand slave is also fantastic.
Foxx however may be the films biggest problem. Django is not your standard hero and his goal is fervently fixed on rescuing Broomhilda and no one else. He’s not going to waste time and energy trying to save the villagers when there’s a princess who comes first. This is not an issue except that Foxx does little to make Django likeable or accessible. He’s not charming enough for us to unequivocally root for him, and doesn’t sell his tenderness for Broomhilda enough for that to be the impetus for audience support. Tarantino’s original choice of Will Smith, who is blessed with easy charm, may have been a better fit.
There is much much much to enjoy about Django Unchained, but as a whole it doesn’t bite with the cleverness of other Tarantino films. Amongst the endless homages in his filmography, Tarantino has always added his own classic moments, but they seem to missing from this film. Ultimately enjoyable, if a little underwhelming, if nothing else we can be grateful to Django Unchained for allowing the phrase “that’s the worst thing since Quentin Tarantino’s Australian accent”. Oh yes. That happens.
Django Unchained is released in Australia on January 24th
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson