Is there a filmmaker who feels himself more enthusiastically than Quentin Tarantino? While it's always nice to see a writer-director take pride and confidence in his work, Tarantino's dedication to making epic movies can reach Kanye West-sized levels of ego-driven overkill. (Admit it: As relentlessly entertaining as Inglourious Basterds was, wasn't it also relentlessly bloated and long?) Django Unchained is yet another movie that has Tarantino keeping the party going after all the exciting stuff has died down.
The first bona-fide Western that Tarantino has claimed as such — really, haven't most of his movies been Westerns in some form? — Django Unchained puts Jamie Foxx front and center as the title character, a 19th century slave who proves to be quick with the gunslinging. Set two years before the Civil War, the movie has Django joining forces with Dr. King Schultz (Inglourious Basterds baddie Christoph Waltz), a German dentist-turned-bounty-hunter who literally frees our hero from shackles so he can help Schultz track down three outlaw brothers only Django can identify. The man with the silent "D" wholeheartedly offers his services, since these dirtbags are the ones who separated him from his beloved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).
Before the first hour is over, Django has located the brothers on the plantation home of white-suited cotton baron Big Daddy (a hambone, amusingly racist Don Johnson) and dealt out the first of many big paybacks. Eventually, Django and Schultz become a bounty-hunting team, spending a snowy winter chasing down outlaws so they can work their way up to Mississippi. That's where Django's girl is, now working on a plantation owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, relishing his sinister, scenery-chewing swagger), a dapper Francophile with tobacco-yellowed teeth who specializes in mandingo-fighting slaves.
For much of its nearly three-hour length, Django Unchained is one energizing, entrancing ride. Tarantino gets in touch with his inner Sergio (Leone or Corbucci, whichever you prefer) and makes a Southern-fried spaghetti Western, complete with whiplash-quick, WTF zoom-ins, ridiculously gory/grisly shootouts (if Peckinpah was alive, he'd weep with joy at the fountains of splatter) and cameos from cult-favorite character actors (yes, Franco Nero, Corbucci's Django, shows up to exchange a few words with Tarantino's). He finds a cool, complementary pairing in Foxx, who always does his best acting with directors who recognize his badass potential, and Waltz, who uses his urbane sangfroid for a good guy this time around.
While racial slurs are used quite liberally in this film, this is perhaps the first movie Tarantino has made where their constant use feels both justified and essential. (Hey, this is a movie about the pre-Civil War South!) No, what's offensive is Tarantino's sleeve-tugging anxiousness to impress. In addition to his cameo, the writer-director piles on more bloody deaths, more monologues, more nut-crushing confrontations lest we forget for a moment how awesome a filmmaker he is. The last hour is pretty much a superfluous free-for-all, with Django striking down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who dare to cross him — and that includes Candie's house-negro lieutenant (Samuel L. Jackson, practically playing the live-action version of Uncle Ruckus from The Boondocks). But even before that, you sense Tarantino overstaying his welcome. The minute I saw DiCaprio pull a skull out of a box, in order to touch off a monologue about why blacks are more submissive than whites, I didn't think, "How confrontational" or "How tasteless," I thought, "Oh shit, I'm gonna be here for 30 more minutes." (When moments like that arise, it seems like Tarantino the notorious high-school dropout is overcompensating.)
Even though the man has basically been on a lifelong mission to show how movies — especially his — can be joyous, subversive, transcendent, ass-blasting experiences, Tarantino doesn't have a self-restraining impulse when it comes to showing off his talent. The result, when you deal with someone who loves movies and loves making movies as much as Tarantino does, is that you also have to deal with someone who doesn't know when to call it a day. As fearless as Tarantino gets in showing how ugly the Old South was — and showing all those racist peckerwoods getting their comeuppance is a nice gift for black audiences this Christmas — in Django Unchained he doesn't quit while he's ahead.