When “Reservoir Dogs” appeared in 1992 no-one with eyes in their heads could have missed the birth of a unique new talent. Everything in this move felt fresh and different. The fantastic dialogue, the non-linear storyline, the characters coming alive through expertly executed flashbacks, and what everyone talked about – the aestheticized ultraviolence. Closer to the real thing than a crime caper movie, it still managed a wide emotional span. Structured like a Greek tragedy, mixed with humor and all the trappings of genre film it seduced and captivated. Even though the ear-cutting scene felt like an unnecessary false note this is still one of my favorite films of all time, something that can be watched again and again.
“Pulp Fiction” appearing in 1994 was the same type of story, this time defiantly tongue in cheek and riffing off every noir movie ever made. Rich, beautiful and artistic it launched and relaunched the careers of Uma Thurman and John Travolta respectively. Filled with great performances by fine actors (Samuel L Jackson, anyone?), wonderful dialogue, an abundance of exceptional scenes and the trade-mark Tarantino hyper-aesthetic violence. One of these rare occasions where the critics and the general public could meet in their appreciation. Nothing less than a formidable achievement that would serve as a career-builder for anyone.
After this, things would get more complicated. The collaborative effort “Four rooms”, where Tarantino directed one of the four segments, was an easily forgotten detour making no waves whatsoever. Writing and acting in Robert Rodriguez “From dusk till dawn” didn´t appease the critics even though it ended up a highly enjoyable cult favorite.
1997´s “Jackie Brown” turned out to be a deviation from the formula and as such not as immediately successful as its predecessors. However, this movie definitely grows on you and today I think that this is one of his greatest accomplishments. A beautiful retelling of the Elmore Leonard novel “Rum punch”, making good use of non-linearity and split-screen. Casting Robert de Niro in that role is nothing less than genius, but would have taken a director with a set of extra hard brass balls. Quite unusual for a Tarantino film, Pam Grier and Robert Forster are actually allowed enough room to carefully build their characters, both understated but still so good. I don´t believe we´ve ever seen such wonderful acting in a Tarantino movie before.
The pay-back fantasy of “Kill Bill”, released as two separate films in late 2003 and early 2004 delivered an aesthetically pleasing subjective take on the revenge genre. The modern time saga of the Bride striking back against adversity while paying homage to Hong Kong movies, Japanese chanbara, Italian spaghetti westerns and 1970´s exploitation rape/revenge flicks was a captivating roller coaster of a movie. Although this type of story needs to be pretty polarized (there shouldn´t be any doubts about the righteousness of the heroine, and the punishment received by the bad guy should be at least as cruel as the crime), you could still enjoy the coolness of Darryl Hannah´s bad girl Elle Driver, matching eye-patch and all. The samurai-scene with its heaps of body parts was rendered stylish enough to achieve the proper detachment from what it´s actually depicting, a pretty horrific slaughter. It´s so obvious we´re in comic book land that we can relax, sit back and enjoy it for what it is. Rich enough to be instantly likable, a seemingly instinctive feel for genre-hopping and a very keen sense of aesthetics.
2007 saw the release of the “Grindhouse”-project, consisting of “Death proof” by Tarantino and “Planet terror” by friend and associate Robert Rodriguez. Although in many ways a thoroughly realized project, with the two features mixed with fictional trailers and advertisments, it still bombed at the box-office and ended up as two separate movies. Maybe better as an idea than as a finished product. Tarantino´s segment “Death proof” was pretty unremarkable and I doubt that many would want to return after the first viewing.
“Inglourious Basterds” (2009) was Tarantino´s take on a WW II story, riffing on the 1978 Italian war movie with almost the same title (minus the spelling errors). Again we´re in fantasy land, with an alternate universe story where the Nazis get what they deserve by way of a group of baseball-bat wielding American commandos led by Brad Pitt. The opening scene is classic Tarantino, with Christoph Waltz as a jew hunting SS colonel delivering a chillingly tense monologue while refugees are stirring under the floorboards. This wonderful and understated beginning quickly gives way to wider strokes of the brush. That said, the story still keeps you in its grip and manages the balance between excitement and ridicule.
So, after all this we´ve finally arrived at Tarantino´s latest work, “Django Unchained” released in 2012. Him making a stylized version of the spaghetti western might not be that surprising, given his fixations in the past. Here we get a bustling wild west story dealing with amongst other things the very delicate subject of America´s history of slavery. Not that the movie is actually saying that much about the plight of Afro-Americans in mid-19th century Texas. It seems like merely acknowledging the historical facts of slavery is enough to make people uncomfortable.
Cannibalizing genre film and regurgitating the ingredients as something your own takes a special talent, and is in many ways a tight-rope act. Great rewards awaits those who reach the other side, and a plunge towards certain death is inevitable for those who don´t. Although greatly anticipating this film I couldn´t help feeling deeply disappointed after seeing it. Regardless of some good scenes there is very little here that we haven´t seen before. The character played by Christoph Waltz is a weak caricature of his performance in “Inglourious Basterds”. The degree of violence in the final shoot-out reaches such ridiculous proportions that it´s impossible to not feel irritated. If you´ve ever looked for the proper place to use the word gratuitous I think you´ve found it.
One of the typical things to be found in Tarantino movies are the long monologues that´s often not essential to the plot, but still fiendishly entertaining. Seemingly simple things, but so very dependent on the exact right tone to work in the context of the film. He´s done that so often and with such grace, but in “Django” something feels distinctly off. Not even using Cristoph Waltz again helps.
After so many years of enjoying his movies, I´m sad to say that Quention Tarantino nowadays feels very much like a one-trick pony repeating the same gimmicks over and over again. Continuing weak stories spiced-up by his by now well-known brand of aesthetic ultraviolence doesn´t lead anywhere except to unnecessary repetition. You know, we did get it the first time. What I would really like to see him doing is to take up the thread left by “Jackie Brown”.