Adam Clarke was originally released under the title “If You Live, Shoot”
Ex-dentist turned bounty hunter, Dr. Schultz (Christophe Waltz), acquires a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) to help track down the latest names on his list. Schultz finds this “slavery malarkey” incredibly distasteful, so Django becomes a free man as soon as they get their men. Django shows himself to be a natural in the bounty game, so Schultz suggests they become partners. When the ex-slave-turned-gunslinger reveals that his wife, Hildy (Kerry Washington), remains a slave, Schultz promises to help track her down and free her.
Django Unchained continues the proud tradition of films like Django The Bastard, which trade on the name of Sergio Corbucci’s cult favourite Django despite having little or no connection to it. But just as some of those unofficial sequels equalled or bettered Corbucci’s classic spaghetti western, Django Unchained is perfect slick, violent entertainment. It’s also too long (by at least twenty minutes) and gets kind of boring before it ends. But even these weaknesses show how well Quentin Tarantino knows the genre he’s working in, since many classic spaghetti westerns have the same problems (The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, for instance) and lose steam in the climax.
As is often the case with spaghetti westerns, Unchained has a simple revenge plot, which proves a relief after the messy, self-indulgent nonsense of Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. This film also has no trace of Eli Roth, for which this bro-dude-weary critic is most grateful.
Django Unchained takes a page from Death Rides A Horse by pairing up a well-traveled gunslinger with a quiet apprentice out for revenge. In Death Rides a Horse that relationship allowed Lee Van Cleef to shine in the role of the aging gunman while keeping the hopelessly bland John Phillip Law from embarrassing himself in the acting department. Law may be the hero of Death Rides A Horse, but Van Cleef walked away with the film. Sure enough, Jamie Foxx is a decent hero, but he’s upstaged by Christophe Waltz at virtually every opportunity. Waltz’s genteel, mannered, moral and slightly foppish Schultz is a worthy addition to the pantheon of quirkier heroes in this genre. Even though this is Django’s story, the film suffers when Schultz isn’t on-screen.
When Django Unchained gets it right — which is more often than not — it’s fantastic. Tarantino has always known when to steal, so his appropriation of the theme from Corbucci’s Django (which sounds as if it was sung by George Takei) is no surprise. Tarantino also makes great use of Ennio Morricone’s amazing score for Citta Violenta throughout his film. Of all the actors who make surprise appearances (Hey, it’s Luke Duke Tom Wopat, you guys!) Franco Nero has a quiet little scene where his original Django meets Foxx’s Django. Just as the new and old exchange looks in the scene, Tarantino blends his influences with considerable success.
Django Unchained isn’t the best film I’ve seen this past year — that’d still be Argo — but it’s certainly the most entertaining film of 2012.