Sunday 20 January 2013

Django Unchained

Strange Fruit, 
Underneath The Django Tree

Django Unchained
USA 2012
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Playing at cinemas now.

In the words of Colonel Hans Landa, the main antagonist of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained is... "not too terrible."

That is to say...

I quite like the movies of Quentin Tarantino as a rule. Not too sure about the personality of the director himself but, while the films can, it has to be said, be a little hit and miss in some areas, they’re usually worth watching at some level, at least, and certainly Django Unchained flourishes at a certain level here. It’s no coincidence I use the word “level”, either, because most Tarantino films exist for a certain section of the audience (and I include myself in that particular section) as more of a giant game/puzzle than an actual movie. They are just an audio/visual hit list of famous (and some not so famous) movie references and the thrill and wonder of seeing a fresh movie from this director can primarily be seen at the “game level” as a half decent pub quiz loaded with film questions. And that’s often where the pleasures of these particular movies best exist.

Django Unchained is no exception and as soon as the movie started to the strains of the title song of the original Sergio Corbucci Django movie, I was sent immediately into “game mode” and, sure enough, like many Tarantino films before this one, more than half the movie seems to play out to cuts from old CD soundtracks in my personal library... including, of course, many much loved spaghetti western scores.

It’s not quite the spaghetti western movie everyone was expecting it to be, however, and right from just the movie’s title and poster campaign, which uses the typography from the original 1966 Django movie (and many rip off sequels, no doubt), Tarantino seems to announce that “the game” is afoot.

Lets have a look at this for a second...

A film which is actually only half spaghetti western in its make-up (but that half was pretty good) is called Django Unchained, uses the same kind of typography as the original Django, uses one of the original title song recordings (from the English language version of the film), uses a heck of a lot of spaghetti western iconography in it (and therefore also the trailer) and even goes so far as to cast Franco Nero, the original Django, in a cameo scene and give him a joke line about how you pronounce the name Django... well you kinda expect this to be a continuation or possibly a remake of the very first Django movie, right?

Nope. Against all those expectations, Django Unchained is not a continuation of either Django or Django Strikes Again (the two “official” Franco Nero Django movies) or even Takashi Miike’s recent Sukiyaki Western Django (which featured Tarantino as one of the main characters) however, I’m onto Tarantino’s game here. And this is how it starts, I believe...

When Kill Bill was released, the Japanese edition had several more gory sections in it (plus some alternate shots) and some extra shenanigans involving the final fate of one of the characters that was curiously absent from the US and International print of the movie. Why was this? Well... many people say that he didn’t want any extra censorship issues... to which I say, “Nah... he would have had those issues if the extra footage was included or not”. Tarantino’s game here is he, as a die hard movie buff, knows that a lot of the various exploitation movies from the 60s, 70s and 80s had a lot “harder” cuts in Japan than they did in their international versions. Hammer films famously had extra gore in their Japanese versions, for example. Fans of various movies would then have to jump through hoops to get the extended, harder editions of their movies and this is probably something that someone like Tarantino would feel a certain sense of nostalgia for. So he went ahead and created his own “Japanese edition” for the Japanese market, so fans could go nuts hearing about it and going out of their way to get hold of copies (I remember the feeding frenzy at the time of the Japanese DVD release to get certain editions of these movies).


When the original Corbucci movie Django came out in 1966, it was almost as big, in fact I think it was bigger, than Sergio Leone’s famous first movies in the Western genre which he reinvented and reinvigorated with his personal stylistic flourishes. Django was big and everyone wanted in. Many “unofficial” sequels and prequels were quickly released onto an unsuspecting market, almost all of which had nothing to do with the original production team. Added to this were many movies which just took the name, Django, and just retitled the original film so it had Django in the title... whether there was any character who vaguely answered to that name in the movie or not. In terms of unofficial Django movies all released in a period of only a few years... I think we’re talking literally hundreds. The Sabata and Sartana films also, I believe, spawned many unofficial sequels in much the same manner (if I’m inaccurate on that point, keep watching the comments section for this article as I’m sure I know one guy who will jump in and correct me).

So really, what I’m saying is... Tarantino probably never wanted to make a Django movie in the first place... his game was he wanted to make another of those “fake Django” movies and unleash that onto an unsuspecting audience. That, I believe is what happened here.

Now, anyone expecting a full on spaghetti western here is going to be mistaken. True, there are a lot of the trappings of those movies in here... enough to make the first half of the movie Tarantino’s “mini-spaghetti” and on many levels that works really well. There are some great moments in here. Some of them even seem like they originated in this movie... I think... yeah, I’m sure some of those sequences are less referential than others but, who cares, the script on this one sings along and is a joy, in the hands (or mouths) of some of the actors, to behold. And, as I made clear earlier, it’s nice to play “spot the reference” with these movies anyway...I loved seeing a training montage shot to the strains of Riz Ortolani’s score for Day Of Anger, for example, although I didn’t quite see how the context of that sequence related to the original movie as no betrayal or rivalry is evident in this movie as that use of music might suggest. The relationship between the two lead protagonists in Django Unchained are not like that of Giuliano Gemma and Lee Van Cleef in that earlier movie.

There are a lot of moments in this film that, I dunno, don’t quite make sense in internal logic (as is often the way with a Tarantino movie) but are fun little moments to pick out anyway. For example, the snowbound landscapes from the first half of the movie where Django pairs up with a German bounty hunter are obviously quite referential to another of Sergio Corbucci’s key westerns, The Great Silence... but Morricone’s score from that movie seems curiously absent from these sequences and whereas the “bounty killer” in The Great Silence was played by a steely eyed, Klaus Kinski as a brutal antagonist, the German bounty killer in Django Unchained is played with much gusto and charm by the inimitable Christoph Waltz who is similarly steely in certain scenes but who is definitely one of “the good guys” when it comes to this movie.

And as he did with the role of Hans Landa in the earlier Tarantino movie Inglorious Basterds, Christoph Waltz quite literally waltzes off with all the scenes he’s in... as interesting as Jamie Foxx and his colleagues may be to some movie viewers (I’ve not actually seen Jamie Foxx in anything other than in a role in the Robin Williams vehicle Toys, and I don’t remember him in it... but I know he’s quite well thought of), it is always Christoph Waltz who you can’t help but watch in these scenes and when he is absent from certain portions of the film... that’s when things get a bit dull in places.

Leonardo Di Caprio, is another actor I’ve not seen in much and, although I can see that he’s an absolutely brilliant actor, I’m not the biggest fan of him and find him quite a boring actor on some levels myself. Unfortunately for me, and possibly the movie, he is also playing a quite unsympathetic racist and exploiter of his fellow man and, this coupled with his general drab personality, means that some scenes tended to drag for me.

In fact, the whole second half of the picture seems to drag in a fair few places and, although that might have been the intention, it really didn’t do much for me. And I like films with more talking and less action in them, quite often.

It’s been said that film making, and I think we’re just talking about the stereotypical view of US film making here, I suspect... is all about cause and effect. It’s often frowned upon or seen as something to not do to have scenes which don’t add anything to the general narrative thrust of the picture and it’s not a prescription I would prescribe to personally, when talking about movies in general. Early on in his career, Tarantino was praised for making films which had no extra fat and which told a story where every scene shown mattered,,, that’s hardly the case with the films we see by him now and the quirky indulgence of a director to take as many tangents as he or she wants from the storyline is always fine by me. That’s all part of the art of movies... as long as you remember the trick is to not be too boring. Django Unchained could, in my opinion, have done with a lot of trimming to get the running time down and to eradicate various scenes which dragged. In fact, I’d have removed great sections of the last third if it had been me.

But of course, it’s not me, it’s Tarantino... and he should be allowed, as an artist (and he is an artist and a damn good one sometimes) to be free to put exactly what he wants on the screen for the audience. Just as it’s the right of that audience to reject, accept, enjoy or hate what is up on the screen in front of them. Django Unchained, for me, was a movie that was just a little too long and not quite oiled enough to be as vastly entertaining as his great movies like Inglorious Basterds, Kill Bill and Jackie brown. 

Unlike those movies just mentioned, the movie strains to become something more than the sum of it’s celluloid drenched, movie referencing, post-modernistic parts... but you know what?

That doesn’t matter either because it’s still worth watching.

Fans of the specific movie genres referenced in this film are going to have fun spotting and hearing the references... and even people who don’t know or don’t catch the references should have fun too. And after all, good or bad, films like this one are always worth taking a look at so you can have some kind of opinion on them, right?

Django Unchained is playing at assorted cinemas and flea pits across the UK now. Check it out if you have the time.


  1. Every review I read of it mentions the relatively flabby last third. I'd agree, but the hijinks worked for me--I was willing to suspend many types of disbelief and like you said, I was willing to go along with "the game." For me, Tarantino's storytelling is like the roar of a souped-up dragster--really annoying when it's at the wrong place and time but capable of charging up this kind of dated genre. And thanks for illuminating us on the references of the soundtrack!

  2. Hi Bucko,

    I don't claim to know even a hundredth as much about Western's as you. So the fact that you were okay with my review means a lot to me.

    So when are you going to blog this one yourself? I want to read your take on it.

    All the best.