[Screen It]

(2012) (Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz) (R)

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Drama/Action: A mid-19th century slave joins forces with a German-born bounty hunter to capture or kill criminals, all while trying to track down and buy the freedom of the slave's wife.
It's 1863 and German-born bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (CHRISTOPH WALTZ) is on the trail of finding the murderous Brittle brothers and returning them to justice, dead or alive. The only problem is that he doesn't know what they look like and thus enlists the aid of Django (JAMIE FOXX), a formerly brutalized slave who can identify them. After purchasing Django in a violent fashion, he makes him an offer he can't refuse -- help him find the Brittle brothers and he'll give the slave his freedom.

Django turns out to be quite good at his new profession, and after he and Schultz complete their work on a plantation owned by Spencer Bennett (DON JOHNSON), Schultz proposes they work together as bounty hunter partners through the winter and then head to Mississippi to look for and hopefully buy the freedom of Django's slave wife, Broomhilda (KERRY WASHINGTON).

They were separated long ago, and it's eventually discovered that she's on the grounds of "Candyland," a notorious plantation whose owner, Calvin Candie (LEONARDO DiCAPRIO), is quite active in the brutal sport of mandingo fighting. As they arrive under false pretenses, Schultz and Django try to locate Broomhilda, all while Candie's top house slave, Stephen (SAMUEL L. JACKSON), becomes increasingly suspicious of them and their claims.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Although the majority of the world only focuses on the successes (and then failures) of its various stars, be they in the business, political, sports or entertainment fields, the smart people realize that there's usually at least one person behind the famous person's climb to fame. Granted, such famous figures usually acknowledge those people as part and sometimes most of the reason for their success. But the publically unknown "little people" often move on, sometimes from burning out -- especially if said stars get too big for their britches -- and sometimes from the way fate plays out.

And when those relatively unknown figures are gone, it's not unusual for the stars to stumble to one degree or another. While I'm sure director Quentin Tarantino will continue on with critical and/or box office successes for however long he continues to make movies, there's no denying that the late editor Sally Menke helped craft his films behind the scenes and turn them into the acclaimed works they ultimately became.

From "Reservoir Dogs" through "Pulp Fiction" all of the way up to "Inglourious Basterds," Menke (who earned Oscar nominations for those two last mentioned flicks) shaped Tarantino's films and likely served as a filter for his wild ideas and desire to fill his pics with his usual mixture of creativity, film history, and mash-up of movie genres and songs.

Alas, she passed away in 2010, meaning she didn't get the chance to work on the filmmaker's latest project, "Django Unchained." While it's competently edited by Fred Raskin (who's edited most of the "Fast and Furious" films and was an assistant editor on Tarantino's "Kill Bill" pics), it's nevertheless far too long (clocking in at 2 hours and 45 minutes), gets carried away with showcasing its over-the-top violence and gore (particularly in the third act), and has some scenes that may be decent as standalone moments (especially a comedy bit about some pre-Klan yahoos and their ill-fitting hoods) but easily could and should have been edited down or jettisoned altogether.

Like the filmmaker's last (and far better) outing, this one's a revenge fantasy. Rather than Jews taking care of Nazis in a revisionary look at WWII, this tale focuses on a slave (Jamie Foxx) who becomes an unlikely partner to an unlikely German born bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) working in mid-19th century America hunting down and usually killing wanted criminals. The fact that Foxx's title character has a history of being abused in various ways by white owners and others of the same race means he doesn't having any problem following up on his question that they get to kill white people and get paid for it.

The filmmaker's script (which is terrific by the way, although he could have easily cut about one hundred uses of the "N" word and still got the point across with the remaining ones) initially sets up the story to make us believe that the majority of it will focus on the experienced and rookie bounty hunters tracking down a trio of criminals known as the Brittle brothers and bringing them to justice, Tarantino style. That does happen, but it occurs fairly quickly and thus allows the film to travel down a different path.

Namely, that's of the two men then trying to find and buy the freedom of Django's fellow slave wife (Kerry Washington) who was sold off elsewhere and whose whereabouts are currently unknown. That leads the men -- when not dispatching various wanted types -- on a journey that eventually leads them to a plantation whose owner (Leonardo DiCaprio) has Broomhilda (yes, that's the slave wife's name, just one example of various humorous bits Tarantino has infused into his tale), but is more interested in mandingo fighting (that includes several scenes that easily offset the comedy and quickly remind us of the brutality of the past).

And that eventually leads them and thus the viewer into the realm of an older house slave with the non-threatening name of Stephen. When we see that he's played by Samuel L. Jackson and that performer's usual intensity blares out from his eyes, however, we know this isn't going to be the usual Stepin Fetchit portrayal of such a servant. No, apparently Stephen seemingly was an ancestor to Jackson's Jules Winnfield from "Pulp Fiction" (not really, but they're certainly kindred spirits), and thus the eruptive venom many have associated with Jackson (and which have become his stereotype) is right there, boiling just beneath and occasionally bubbling over the surface.

His relationship with DiCaprio's character is nothing short of fascinating (the slave talks back to the master yet is his informant and protector, nearly in a father figure sort of fashion) while the character is despicable in terms of siding with his captors rather than those in the same boat as him. While not disturbing (notwithstanding the violence they dole out), the chemistry between Foxx and Waltz is quite delicious, no doubt helped by the latter's performance that is nothing short of brilliant.

In fact, between him, DiCaprio and Jackson, Foxx has a hard time climbing to the top of the attention heap, despite being the designated titular protagonist. While his character has no problem becoming a hunter of white men, I found the transformation from unsure slave to proficient, smooth and cool bounty hunter a bit too quick and easy, thus meaning it isn't quite believable. Yes, it's all fantasy as described earlier, but a little extra work could have made the transition go down easier.

Of course, that's said in the context of a filmmaker who continues his usual gleeful spree of sending up genres, mashing them together, juxtaposing all sorts of cinematic elements and clichés and generally coming off like a movie geek in a movie candy store. While I found most of them entertaining for what they are, the film does come off at times as just Tarantino doing what he does best. While his diehard aficionados will eat that up, it would be nice to see him try something different that challenges him as a storyteller and filmmaker.

What's present works, but it seems too easy for him and simply delivers what we've come to expect. Had Menke had the chance to edit this film, perhaps it would have come off different to some extent. If anything, it probably would have been shorter and trimmed off its excess fat and the filmmaker's instinct to go overboard at times. Good but not the best Tarantino has ever done, "Django Unchained" rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed December 6, 2012 / Posted December 25, 2012

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