Quentin Tarantino returns with his reinterpretation of cult genre as individual vision with a Spaghetti Western that revives the character made famous by Franco Nero (who not only provided ‘friendly participation’ with this project but also makes a very welcome guest appearance) in a series of films beginning with the surreally macabre classic Spaghetti Western, Django (1966). This isn’t the first re-interpretation; Miike Takashi’s, if you will, Ramen Western, Sukiyaki Western Django (2007) featured Tarantino playing the role of Piringo, something that he manages far better than his brief cameo here as one of the LeQuint Dickey Mining Co. employees. Like the original film (and perhaps more notably the classic series’ one of numerous non-official additions Django Kill! ) Tarantino’s film has had its critics, who have raised concerns about the acceptability of its content and copious graphic violence and torture.
Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave in a chain gang but he has strength and determination. Escape comes in the strange and unlikely form of Deutsche dentist Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who is actually a bounty hunter (he now ‘deals in corpses’ rather than teeth) despite the distinctive molar-on-a-spring advertising gimmick that wobbles atop his carriage. Django will gain his freedom by assisting Schultz with finding those wanted ‘dead or alive’ and will receive reasonable recompense for his efforts. But Django’s ultimate goal is to gain further freedom from slavery by finding his German speaking wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) and freeing her from the atrocious conditions she is living in. This is a country where race determines your horrendous treatment, where the crack of the whip is part of the savage normality of life.
Issues of racism and slavery both echo and contrast with another recent film set in mid 19th century America – that of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), although their execution is entirely different. Django Unchained does deal with issues and does not shirk from their occasionally shocking portrayal but ultimately this is a genre piece that mixes character and plot with a big pile of action and violence. It is first and foremost a piece of entertainment that is well shot, predominantly acted in a way that befits its narrative and includes a plethora of set pieces (every Western has to have at least a few grand multi-person shoot-outs) and side stories that include fighting, gambling, drinking and law enforcement that constantly enrich Django’s story and his determination to find his long lost love. It’s Django, ‘the fastest gun in the south’ as he becomes, rather than Siegfried. But, like that character of legend whose story Schultz relays to the former slave, he likewise faces a multitude of adversaries in a shocking number of situations to try and regain his Brünnhilde. His adversary is not a fantastical dragon but rather a particularly evil human as he faces the ultimate confrontation with Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) at his Candyland lair.
Blood spurts, whips crack, guns blaze and there are as many drinks, whores and horses as you could want in a Western, but Tarantino also manages to inject a large amount of humour into the piece, with sharp scripting and great comic timing. There are cracking performances from all the leads and even Schultz’s horse manages to introduce himself with panache – in the best Western tradition. Tarantino’s speciality lies with his reinterpretation of genres that are often less respected, clearly demonstrating his love of all things cinematic. Django Unchained does raise issues, yes, but it is primarily an entertainment piece that is hugely enjoyable.