Django Unchained (A-)
U.S.: Quentin Tarantino, 2012, Weinstein Company/Anchor Bay
An audaciously enjoyable and horrifically exciting melodrama set in the Old West and the Old South of the 19th century, Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained churns out not so much the history of our dreams, or the dreams of our history (what John Ford and D. W. Griffith gave us), but the nightmare alternative Western history of Sergio Leone and his colleagues and imitators, from the revisionist '60s and '70s, when there were movies with titles like A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die. Since Tarantino has called Leone's The Good, The Bad and the Ugly his favorite movie, it's not surprising that he gives his new show something like the grandly operatic super-style that was Leone's hallmark: an eye-popping cross-cultural technique full of simmering machismo and tolling bells and epic showdowns and Mexican standoffs and explosive violence, with characterizations so lurid and unrestrained and colorful that the movie often seems to be poking fun at itself. And us.
Tarantino's latest is a jocular, bloody madhouse of a movie that stomps on notions of political correctness as if they were bugs. The title comes from a sleazily baroque oater directed by Corbucci -- an Italian Leone knockoff that starred, as coffin-toting bounty hunter Django, Franco Nero. (Nero does a self-kidding cameo here in a bar scene.)
Instead we get charismatic African American gunman-bounty hunter Django (played with stoic hip and smolder by Jamie Foxx) -- an embittered ex-slave saved from outlaws and schooled in slaughter by Dr. King Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz, the wordy Nazi villain of Inglorious Basterds). Waltz is a good guy this time, Django's mentor, but there's some high-grade screen villainy by Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson, both of whom would have stolen the movie if Waltz didn't already have it stuffed in his back pocket.
It's a typical Quentin Tarantino mix: a grand expansion of the kind of movie that used to be slapped together by producers, Italian and otherwise, whose motives were mostly purely mercenary, and writers and directors of sometimes high but batty-looking style who would do practically anything to keep the audience awake. We're in the West and the South, circa sometime around 1858, and we see Waltz as the dazzlingly eloquent German traveling dentist and bounty hunter Schultz save and free the quietly deadly slave Django (Jamie Foxx). Schultz wants Django to help him track down some elusive bounty prey, Django's old acquaintances the Brittle brothers, murderous scum for whose heads fortunes are offered. Django, hellbent on revenge, wants to find his still enslaved wife, the German-speaking Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).
In the course of their search, interrupted by numerous cameos by erstwhile stars and mainstays of that great cinematic era, the late '60s and '70s, Schultz and Django wind up in the elegant but barren-looking estate Candyland, insane domicile of the sadistic Southern gentleman Calvin Candie (DiCaprio), whose affairs are actually run by Stephen, a devilish consigliere disguised as an Uncle Tom. There, surrounded by affable bigots, Southern aristocrats, milk-faced semi-belles and persecuted African American gladiators, King and Django infiltrate the beast's lair and whet Candie's depraved racist appetites, by pretending to be part of the local Mandingo slave-fighter trade.
The movie is appropriately scored to great jangly torrents of old Ennio Morricone music (and one new Morricone theme), and those of his colleague Luis Bacalov -- along with Richie Havens ("Oh Freedom") and Jim Croce ("I Got a Name"). I also found it amusing to savor the small but pungent roles played by Don Johnson (as Big Daddy), and everybody from Bruce Dern to Russ and Amber Tamblyn to Michael Parks to James Remar to Tom Wopat to Tarantino himself. Amusing too is the movie's cheerfully sarcastic version of the Ku Klux Klan, shown as robed dimwits who repeatedly ride into each other (especially Jonah Hill), because the Klan-seamstress misplaced the eyeholes in their masks.
You can say what you will about Django Unchained, but you can't say it's not both entertaining and some kind of deeply personal project, or that it doesn't have something to say (often stingingly) about American racism and violence. Tarantino takes a story and script that might have been written by Elmore Leonard or David Mamet after a few shots, and directed by a Sergio Corbucci, a Fernando Di Leo or a Lucio Fulci, and gives it the kind of finicky attention to high style you might expect from a David Lean or a Federico Fellini.
One of the likable things about some trashy, unrestrained, magnificently awful movies -- trash done with genius and shamelessness -- is that this kind of show lets you indulge some sleazy impulses, without suffering the usual consequences. That's part of Tarantino's appeal. He opens up great golden veins of amusing garbage, enlivens his stories with his genius for dialogue and the fruits of his hip encyclopedic take on movies, and then just doesn't censor himself. Much. He makes us laugh, so we have a tendency we let him get away with murder.
Is Django enjoyable? Indubitably, as King Schultz might say. Is Django offensive? Probably. Should we take it seriously? Maybe yes. Maybe no. Or, to be less wishy-washy, we should take the soul of this movie seriously, but not necessarily the body. We'll leave that to the flesh-peddlers and violence hucksters and racists, who, in this movie at least, get their just deserts.
Jack Reacher (B-)
U.S.: Christopher McQuarrie, 2012, Paramount
Violence begets box-office, or so Hollywood often seems to believe -- and Jack Reacher, the guns-blazing crime movie thriller starring Tom Cruise as the seemingly invincible title hero, is an almost ridiculously violent movie, so ridiculous that if writer-director Christopher McQuarrie had dreamed up better jokes, and more of them, he might have had one hell of a comedy. Based on One Shot, one of a series of crime novels by Lee Child about Reacher, a 6'5" behemoth of an ex-military dude who lives under the radar, and emerges to solve crimes maybe just for the hell of it (or, in this case, to prove he was right in a previous case), the movie stars Cruise in a role more appropriate for Liam Neeson or Dwayne Johnson.
The movie starts with a bang -- five or six bangs actually, as a sniper blasts five strangers from a parking lot across from Pittsburgh's baseball stadium. When the wrong sniper (Joseph Sikora as Bart) is arrested for this crime, he calls out for Reacher (who arrested him for another shooting during the Iraq War), and goes into a coma, Reacher shows up anyway, convinced that Bart is guilty, and offers his investigative services to Bart's attractive lawyer Helen Rodin, daughter of the famous Pittsburgh D.A. "Rody" Rodin (Richard Jenkins). Rodin is prosecuting Bart, and other mysterious characters are involved in some kind of conspiracy which will be revealed later. At that time, we will meet, to our astonishment, a cold, glassy-eyed maniac of a crime and business czar called The Zec, played by the great German filmmaker Werner Herzog.
There's also a car chase -- the old-fashioned, nondigital kind -- and several fights, one in a parking lot, often with guns. And, at the end, Robert Duvall shows up as Cash, a salty old Marine and jocular gun salesman, who gets in on the fight just for the hell of it -- or so it appeared.
I didn't like the movie very much; it's just not a very good, even though, to their credit, the filmmakers try almost everything. Cruise takes his shirt off (and Pike complains). McQuarrie, who wrote very good, sharp, stylized dialogue for The Usual Suspects, seems to have decided to crank out stylized mediocre dialogue for a while. Cruise plays Jack with a lot of charisma but no patented Cruise smile. He also tries hard to play six-five, but only manages five-ten.
Gangster Squad (B-)
U.S.: Ruben Fleischer, 2013 (Warner Bros.)
Gangster Squad is a well-produced but badly written crime movie depicting a 1949 war between gangster Mickey Cohen and a vigilante squad of undercover LAPD cops. Watching it brought back memories of the real Mickey Cohen, as I saw him on TV decades ago. He was a scary guy, but not in the psychopathic monster style with which Sean Penn sometimes amusingly plays him here. The real Mickey Cohen was scary because he seemed, in a funny way, so ordinary, so likable, like a tough uncle with lots of bloody but colorful war stories.
When I saw him, Cohen was on The Mike Douglas Show, which had an afternoon slot, and he was talking about his meeting with Harry Cohn, the longtime head of Columbia Pictures, and reputedly one of the meanest among all Golden Age Hollywood execs (which is saying something). Cohn had called him into his office, according to Mickey, to ask him for an expensive favor. He wanted Mickey to murder Sammy Davis Jr., who had incurred Cohn's displeasure by having a (very secret) affair with Cohen's top Columbia blonde bombshell Kim Novak. As Mickey told it, he listened patiently, then informed Columbia's boss that he knew Sammy Davis Jr., he knew Sammy's father and family, and if anything at all injurious ever happened to Sammy or any other Davis, he, Mickey Cohen would find Harry Cohn and blow his head off.
Did that story really happen? Mickey told it very convincingly, without any seeming pathological kinks or boastfulness. He obviously expected the audience to regard him well for presumably saving Davis' life, and they probably, mostly, did. Somehow, by his air of seeming candor and his casual toughness, he had succeeded in pulling us into his dark world, and its deadly codes. As for the fact that he had confessed to physically threatening a powerful movie mogul with a horrible death, well, Mickey Cohen was a gangster. That's what gangsters do. That's one of the reasons we keep watching gangster movies.
That Mickey Cohen story is more interesting, and scarier, than anything that happens in Gangster Squad, a movie so bloody and violent (superficially so) that it was pulled from its original release date after The Dark Knight Rises massacre in the Aurora, Colorado, multiplex, and partly reshot.
But bloodiness and violence don't really sting unless the people are real, and nobody is real in Gangster Squad: Not the movie's Mickey Cohen, whom Penn plays as a kind of cross between Gary Oldman's Dracula, the Frankenstein monster and Robert De Niro as Al Capone in The Untouchables. Not the vigilantes -- played as six clichés in search of an author by Josh Brolin as Sgt. John O'Mara, the tough returned World War II vet; Ryan Gosling as Jerry Wooters, the tough lady-killer; Anthony Mackie as Coleman Harris, the tough black cop, Michael Peña, the tough Mexican cop Navidad Ramirez; Robert Patrick as the tough old western coot Max Kennard; and Giovanni Ribisi as the not-so-tough techno-geek Conway Keeler (a cliché about three decades early). And not Police Chief William Parker, the LAPD's controversial head cop, whom Nick Nolte turns into a growly old patriarch. Nor Emma Stone as femme fatale Grace Faraday (Cohen's girl, who's also sneaking out with Jerry Wooters). Watching all this top-flight talent stuffing themselves into these roles is kind of like watching a seven-layer wedding cake being stuffed into a Twinkies package.
The story is simple -- which is probably exactly what the police-vs.-Mickey Cohen wars were not. But even though everything in the movie is painfully predictable, everything is also painfully unmemorable. It tends to dribble out of your head as soon as you've seen it. O'Mara does something violently heroic, which draws the attention of Parker, who proposes the undercover gig. O'Mara recruits the other five. His wife (Mireille Enos) is worried. Meanwhile, the film's Mickey Cohen behaves maniacally; in his first big scene, he has a failed minion pulled apart by two cars near the old Hollywoodland sign. (Even that scene is forgettable.) The gangster squad attacks Cohen. He fights back. Bang. Bang. Jerry and Grace sneak off for hanky-panky. Everything keeps building toward the last big showdown. It isn't worth the effort.
Ruben Fleischer, who directed Gangster Squad, has been mostly a hard-edged comedy director (Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less). But one of the problems with Gangster Squad is that, though it's frequently ridiculous, it isn't very funny, which was this script's only real chance. The movie, even though it's clearly a crock of crap, doesn't entertain you. Which is the biggest crime of all.