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Film Reviews | Style & Culture

Film Review: ‘Django Unchained’

Balance of action, humor helps Tarantino's latest thrive

Historians with an eye for detail could spend almost all of “Django Unchained” finding things wrong with it. Some of the art, music, vocabulary, clothing and other minor set dressings weren’t around or in common use in the 1850s, when this movie is set. Picky viewers may recall that dynamite, which is prominently used in key moments of the movie, wasn’t invented until 1867.

Those historians need to relax and enjoy one of the best movies playing in theaters this year.

“Django,” much like director Quentin Tarantino’s previous film, 2009’s “Inglourious Basterds,” takes place in a nonexistent branch of the historical timeline. While “Basterds” deals with the attempted overthrow of Nazi Germany, “Django” takes place in 19th-century America and serves as a reminder that the cowboy and slavery eras were happening at about the same time.

Another overlap “Django” shares with “Basterds” is star Christoph Waltz, who plays a German “Jew Hunter” in the latter film. Here, Austrian native Waltz once again plays a German, this time portraying smooth-talking dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz.

The film opens with a line of slaves walking to their new home after having been purchased at an auction. Schultz comes upon the group, riding his horse and buggy, which has a giant plastic tooth affixed to the top by a spring. Schultz inquires about buying Django, the softspoken slave played by Jamie Foxx, but his new owners refuse. Left with no choice, Schultz shoots them, leaves them his payment for Django and the two set out on their way.

Schultz tells Django he wanted him because he would be able to identify the Brittle brothers, a group of outlaws with a bounty on their heads. Although having just bought Django as his slave, Schultz despises slavery. He agrees to free Django and give him a few dollars after they kill the Brittle brothers.

Instead of leaving, Django travels with Schultz through the winter and they collect bounties together. Schultz agrees to help Django find his wife, Broomhilda von Shaft, played by Kerry Washington, once the winter is over.

Throughout their journey together, Schultz and Django get into their fair share of trouble. Sometimes, it seems like Schultz works himself into tight situations on purpose, taking advantage of his quick wit, know-how and hilarious one-liners to get himself out of danger. Schultz is so well spoken and hilarious that it’s hard not to spend the whole movie waiting for him to say something else badass or pee-your-pants funny. The lines themselves are fantastic, but Waltz’s confident, punctual and accent-tinged delivery are what make it work.

Schultz rubs off on Django and he transforms from a submissive slave to an assured, quipping free man. In a scene featured prominently in the film’s trailer, Schultz asks Django how he enjoys bounty hunting, to which he responds, “Kill white people and get paid for it? What’s not to like?”

The movie’s other stars also show up in a big way. Leonardo DiCaprio thrives as Calvin Candie, a ruthless slave owner with plenty of Southern charm. He quickly transforms from hospitable host to enraged victim when Schultz and Django try to pull the wool over his eyes. Samuel L. Jackson plays Stephen, Candie’s unwaveringly loyal house slave. He excels in the role, but he becomes easy to hate; Stephen is such a pest, trying to disrupt Schultz and Django’s plan to get Broomhilda back.

When the blood is not spilling — and there is plenty of that — this action flick takes the occasional break to be fantastically funny. One of the movie’s highlights is a scene with a Ku Klux Klan-like group of horsemen that plans to kill Schultz and Django in their sleep. Jonah Hill cameos as one of the townspeople as he leads an amusing debate over whether to wear the white hoods made — poorly — by one of the townspeople’s wife.

After “Basterds,” it was fair to speculate that Tarantino knows his way around an alternate-history movie, but “Django” confirms that he may just be the best at it. There’s plenty of action and humor, which makes the characters pop off the screen and into your head, where they set up camp and never leave. Much like Django at the start of his journey, it’s hard to tell where this movie will go, but it ends up somewhere great. Even after almost 3 hours of movie, it’s still hard to get up and leave once the credits roll.

Grade: A