DIRECTED BY Quentin Tarantino
STARS Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz
Exciting. Funny. Gratuitous. Inflammatory. Insensitive. Stylish. Stupid. Sophisticated. Grab just about any adjective out of a hat and chances are it will apply to Django Unchained, writer-director Quentin Tarantino's messy mashup of the Western and the blaxploitation flick, with other conventions tossed into the mix like so much seasoning.
Set a few years before the start of the Civil War, this stars Jamie Foxx as the title character, a slave who's rescued by a bounty hunter going by the name Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, an Oscar winner for Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds). Schultz, a German who abhors slavery, needs Django's help in tracking down some ornery varmints; for his part, Django requires Schultz's aid in rescuing his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the sadistic plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Steeped in violence (enough that the L.A. premiere was canceled out of respect in the wake of the Connecticut tragedy), the movie overcomes its excessive tendencies with a marvelous first half that follows Django and Schultz on the road. It's when the film reaches Candie's plantation that it drops off considerably, largely due to less dramatic tension as well as a ridiculous performance by Samuel L. Jackson as Candie's trusted house slave (while the other actors at least make some attempt at period verisimilitude, Jackson sounds as contempo as he did in Jackie Brown and Pulp Fiction).
On balance, though, Django Unchained is fine entertainment, full of memorable characters (Waltz is excellent), great cameos by personalities forgotten by everyone except Tarantino (e.g., Lee Horsley, TV's Matt Houston back in the '80s; Franco Nero, the original Django in the 1966 movie), and crackerjack set-pieces (the sequence with Don Johnson's Big Daddy leading a charge of bumbling racists is pure comic gold). It might seem like an odd selection for holiday viewing, but at least the blood constantly on tap matches Santa's suit and Rudolph's nose.