Quentin Tarantino's revenge fantasy is a cynical, shallow exercise that fails to pull the director out of his mid-career slump.
In Quentin Tarantino's sixth film, Inglourious Basterds, an elaborate Second World War revenge fantasy, a group of Jewish-American soldiers led by Brad Pitt ambush and then kill Nazis over the four years in occupied France. The Germans are first humiliated and then scalped. They are sometimes beaten to death with a baseball bat. Survivors - and there are few - have swastikas carved into their foreheads by Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Pitt), who is, inexplicably, part Apache.
As news of the Basterds' successes reaches Adolf Hitler in Berlin, he dispatches Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) to bring the Americans to justice. Waltz, who is the film's sole discovery, plays Landa with all the devilish humour of an older actor delighting in his big screen moment. In the film's opening scene, he arrives at a French country home to interrogate a farmer suspected of harbouring Jews. The scene is classic Tarantino: incrementally quickened until it ends in a pulse-raising shoot-out. Landa first turns on his megawatt smile, and later his menace. He promises the farmer - who has three daughters - that they will all be spared if they turn over the Jews who are hiding underneath the floorboards. Once the farmer reluctantly hands over the refugees, Landa's men shoot them all, except a young woman who is allowed to escape.
When we meet the young woman again, four years later, she is the owner of an art deco cinema in Paris that has been picked by the chief Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels to host the premiere of a new war film. The event, it is announced, will host the ruling elite of the Nationalist Socialist German Workers Party, including Hitler. As the woman and her partner, the cinema's black projectionist, plan to burn down the cinema by setting fire to the film reel, the Basterds attempt to infiltrate the Nazi high command by impersonating an Italian film crew. Once inside the theatre, they hope to assassinate both Hitler and Goebbels, bringing an abrupt end to the war.
If any of the above sounds somewhat unbelievable, Tarantino - it is now unthinkable that he was once the steady hand behind the hyper-real Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction - doesn't let on. We are expected to sit back and allow him to mine familiar tropes - the Nazis are flesh-eating zombies of old; the Jews are hell bent on revenge; and cinema can bring about the end of the Second World War. While many of Tarantino's characters in previous films have tended to escape morality, the Americans in Inglourious Basterds betray a newly discovered negligence (perhaps weariness) in Tarantino's filmmaking. This is a bleak chapter in history reimagined as Noughties irony: war as pop-culture entertainment. In Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, death was often casual, sometimes unintentional, but rarely without consequence. There is little soul searching in Tarantino's latest outing. Has filmmaking really become so cynical?
In the Sixties, films like The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare blazed a similarly violent path through the Nazi war machine. But directors such Navarone's J Lee Thompson viewed their American protagonists engaging in a logical battle of wills against Hitler's executioners. For the most part, the Holocaust was rarely mentioned and the films pitted army against army and man against man. Decades earlier, Charles Chaplin both mocked the Third Reich and warned audiences about its dangerous ethics in The Great Dictator. Inglourious Basterds offers no such insight and no such enlightenment: the Tarantino who once kept his ear so keenly to the street is now making revenge fantasies in an oxygen-free chamber.
As the cinema burns and the American soldiers riddle Hitler's body with bullets, I couldn't help but think the director's homage to Kelly's Heroes, which is beautifully realised by the cinematographer Robert Richardson, was intended as a favour to Jews. If that was his intention, I doubt the gesture has been appreciated by many. I hope Tarantino gets out of his middle-period rut - which covers everything since Jackie Brown - lest he should turn his attention to the issue of slavery. The thought of a Tupac-quoting Denzel Washington, mobilising the Bloods and Crips on La Amistad and leading them on a killing spree against their white masters is too much to bear.