It's been five years since writer/director Quentin Tarantino first publicly described a film percolating in his imagination with some variation of the phrase "spaghetti Southern." Django Unchained lives up to that early tease, drawing obvious inspiration from spaghetti Westerns — the stylish and ironic take on traditional Hollywood Westerns that peaked in the late 1960s and '70s with low-budget movies by mostly Italian directors — and transposing it to the antebellum South and its slavery-based economy. It's nothing new for Tarantino to tackle a familiar form like the crime thriller (Pulp Fiction) or the war movie (Inglorious Basterds) and turn it on its head. But Django Unchained ultimately transcends the in-jokes and obscure film references that sometimes characterize the director's work. Tarantino has something to show us here regarding the brutality and exploitation on which our country was built. It may be another hard-boiled tale of redemption and revenge, but surely one with an unusually keen sense of purpose.
Make no mistake — Django Unchained is no somber meditation on the evils of slavery. It pushes Tarantino's trademark stylized violence to dizzying heights of absurdity, with nearly three hours worth of exploding viscera and all manner of comically inspired mayhem. It gleefully recalls the cheap exploitation movies of a bygone era. Django is willfully episodic in the vein of the classic spaghetti Western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, with long and short self-contained sequences included largely for their own entertainment value. A scene that amounts to a music video for Jim Croce's '70s pop hit "I've Got a Name" comes out of nowhere, as does a hilarious sequence that intentionally plays like a treasured outtake from Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles. Tarantino does whatever he wants and makes it all work. The movie loses some steam in the second half as it turns more serious. But on the 20th anniversary of Tarantino's debut, he's got all his early mojo working again.
Though Tarantino puts an unmistakably personal stamp on his films, crucial support always arrives through a well-chosen cast and crew, which in this case includes dozens of New Orleanians. Much of Django was shot in the New Orleans area, with the Evergreen Plantation about an hour outside of town standing in for two of the film's plantation settings, including Candyland, a fictional place where "Mandingo fighting" — in which slaves battle to the death for the amusement and profit of their owners — has become a local industry to rival the production of cotton. Tarantino regulars like Samuel L. Jackson and Christoph Waltz operate comfortably on the director's wavelength, and Leonardo DiCaprio makes a welcome addition to the ensemble in a flamboyant turn as Calvin Candie, the oily proprietor of Candyland. Casting against type while resurrecting pop-culture icons from other eras is another of the director's hallmarks. This time it's Don Johnson of Miami Vice fame who delivers the goods as a vicious slave owner known as Big Daddy.
There's something comically perverse about opening Django Unchained on Christmas Day, when movies with far less disturbing subject matter tend to rule the roost. But you have to believe that was part of Tarantino's plan. Think of Django as the flipside to another kind of slavery tale currently found in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, and you'll have this year's holiday movie season in full perspective. — KEN KORMAN