As diverse as Quentin Tarantino's first films ("Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction," "Jackie Brown") were in tone (tragic, comic and romantic, respectively), they all took place within roughly the same world and the same genre — urban crime. The iconic status that accrued to him in that genre could easily have hardened into a straitjacket. In addition, his dialogue is so relentlessly contemporary that he seemed about as well suited for a 19th century period piece as Ang Lee was for a CGI superhero project like "Hulk."
Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you "Django Unchained." Having progressively broadened his backdrop through "Kill Bill" 1 & 2," "Death Proof" and "Inglourious Basterds," Tarantino has galloped into that most all-American of all genres, the Western.
Stylistically he takes most (but not all) of his cues from the marinara-splattered pasta Westerns of 40 or 50 years ago: Sergio Leone is by far the best known practitioner of the form, but there were dozens of others churning out films for fans who take their spaghetti Westerns al denti insanguinati.
While most Westerns take place after the Civil War, "Django Unchained" is set in the era shortly before the war, and slavery is a crucial plot element. Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German dentist/bounty hunter, comes in possession of Django (Jamie Foxx), whom he needs in order to identify three wanted slave handlers before he perforates them and trades them in for cash.
When the task is done, Schultz, per agreement, gives Django his freedom; but the two have worked so well together that they form a bounty hunting partnership. Eventually, however, Django has to fulfill his own mission — locating and freeing his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from dapper and loathsome plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Perhaps more dangerous — and certainly more complex — is Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), the head "house slave" (a euphemism for a much nastier phrase). All bowing and scraping, the 60-ish Stephen has spent his lifetime perfecting his self-preservation skills. The smartest guy in the room, he maintains layers of deception that garner him as much power as he thinks he can get. But even with that power, he is still a slave.
Much as he is playing a role to satisfy Candie and the rest of the white household, Schultz and Django — like Jules (Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) at the start of "Pulp Fiction" — are playing roles in order to free Broomhilda without Candie learning their goal.
As with "Inglorious Basterds," Tarantino isn't simply imitating the genre (which he certainly could do without effort).
He is interbreeding it with his own aesthetic tendencies and creating a more satisfying fantasy history. Much as his war film had comic moments that seemed straight out of Ernst Lubitsch's "To Be or Not to Be," there are scenes where he rides very close to Mel Brooks's "Blazing Saddles": most notably, a posse of Klan members (including one played by Jonah Hill) squabbling about the design of their hoods.
My one reservation is that, after the nonstop entertainment of the first hour, things occasionally slow down during the remaining hour and a half.
Part of the problem is DiCaprio's Candie: He's as evil as Waltz's Hans Landa in "Inglourious Basterds," but without the verve and style that made us look forward to each of Landa's appearances.
Foxx and Waltz are both terrific, as is most of the rest of the cast, which includes Don Johnson and, in smaller parts, Bruce Dern, Dennis Christopher, James Remar, Franco Nero (who starred in Sergio Corbucci's original "Django"), James Russo, Tom Wopat, Don Stroud, Russ Tamblyn, Lee Horsley, Zoe Bell, Tom Savini, Michael Parks and Tarantino — in short, a host of familiar TV and B-movie faces.
But it's Jackson who lingers in the mind. Stephen is yet another rich character — following Jules Winnfield ("Pulp Fiction") and Ordell Robbie ("Jackie Brown") — that Tarantino and Jackson have created.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).