BY NANCY R. MANDELL
Take one part “Blazing Saddles,” Mel Brooks’ hilarious race-blasting 1974 comedy; add some (very) coarsely-chopped Spaghetti Westerns from Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci; leave the blending to Hollywood bad boy Quentin Tarantino, and out comes “Django Unchained,” perhaps the most unlikely movie ever to open on Christmas Day. In my opinion - and I’m no diehard Tarantino groupie - “Django” is the best thing the wildly original director has produced (actually, written and directed) since “Pulp Fiction.” But this dish comes with a side order of warnings for a diverse range of the fainthearted:
If you like your holiday movies warm and fuzzy, you’re probably better off with ‘Les Miserables.”
There’s plenty of brutality and drama in “Les Miz” but the music is beautiful, the cast attractive, and it all works out in the end.
If the horrific mass murders of children and their teachers in Newtown, Conn. last week make it unthinkable for you to watch - much less appreciate - one of the most violent screen shootouts in film history, stick with “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
And if you simply can’t abide (or like Spike Lee, condone) unlimited usage of the n-word - even when vernacularly appropriate to the antebellum southern setting - bring earplugs or, better yet, stay away.
This movie has so many outstanding performances, that the Golden Globes has nominated two of them for best supporting actor awards. And except for the fact that Christoph Waltz should be in best actor category, he and Leonardo DiCaprio are equally deserving - yet no more so than the overlooked Samuel L. Jackson as the most despicable Negro ever portrayed on film. Jamie Foxx, by the way, is perfect in the pivotal title role.
The story begins two years before the Civil War, as German bounty hunter King Schultz (Waltz) - making his way through the South as a dentist driving a wagon adorned with a gigantic replica of a gold-filled tooth - searches for a captured runaway slave called Django (“the ‘D’ is silent”). Only Django, it seems, can identify the Brittle Brothers, a vicious trio of criminals with a significant price on their heads who fill in on plantations as whip-happy slavemasters. Schultz finds Django in a chain gang of runaways en route to prison, and with the glib conversation (and an offer of bribery) that becomes his hallmark in this splendidly written film, Schultz convinces the surly slave to join him.
Convincing the guards to let Django go is another story, however, and the violence it takes is just the first and hardly the most brutal of many scenes that may shock you during the course of the next nearly three hours. Suffice it to say that Schultz’s methods of disposal are hardly painless, but as a “sophisticated” European, he is truly appalled by the inhuman treatment of slaves in the pre-war South. His innate humanitarianism takes some of the edge off Django’s relentless quest for vengeance. Both men can be brutal killers when the need arises, but even Django finds himself moved by his partner’s total distaste for the plight of southern Negros.
After disposing of the Brittles, Schultz frees Django and offers him a partnership in the bounty hunting business, which he describes as - like slavery - “a cash for flesh business.” It’s an offer Django simply can’t refuse, and the sight of the impressive freed Negro on horseback stuns everyone who sees it - black and white alike!
Now it’s Django’s turn to convince Schultz help him find Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the wife beaten and sold from the plantation where they lived. The separation - seen in flashback--is typical of one way white masters demeaned their slaves – allowing them to copulate in order to produce more slaves but not to marry or create families.
Because this movie is often as zany as it is violent, Broomhilda happens to speak Schultz’s native tongue, thanks to time spent as house slave to a German-speaking mistress. Speaking of zany, Tarantino introduces a mob of early Ku Klux Klanners, determined to take out the bounty hunters. The sequence skips crazily from the scary to the hilarious as the hooded men discover they can’t see through their eyeholes and quickly turns into a slapstick discourse on the sewing skills of one member’s wife and the necessity of wearing hoods at all. The scene features a cameo by Jonah Hill - just one of many by actors like Franco Nero (Corbucci’s original Django), Bruce Dern and Tarantino himself. As a more gracious and greedy plantation owner, Don Johnson has more than a cameo, and as the credits roll, you’ll probably curse yourself for not recognizing a slew of other familiar faces from TV and film
The search for Broomhilda leads Schultz and Django to Mississippi’s most notorious plantation - Candyland, the fiefdom of fourth-generation slave owner Calvin Candie (DiCaprio). A bigot by birth and bored by the business of growing cotton, this smarmy young dandy has turned to promoting Mandingo fights, contests where the brawniest black men compete in hand-to-hand combat virtually to the death. (Cover your ears if you don’t like the sound of bones cracking.)
It’s here that we meet Stephen (Jackson), the trusty old house retainer who served Calvin’s father and brought up the little prince. As self-confident (“cheeky,” says Calvin) as Django, Stephen is his polar opposite when it comes to questions of racial equality and self-determination. Stephen’s stunning duplicity is probably the story’s most effective device and the catalyst for the brutal degradation that leads to the film’s climactic and literal bloodbath. Tarantino treats the shootout like a page from a graphic novel, aiming violent excesses left and right until you recognize the scene as a brilliant feat of film choreography.
Choreography needs music, and when he’s not writing, directing or acting, Tarantino takes charge of the eclectic musical commentary for which his films are famous. “Django Unchained” features a score ranging from Ennio Morricone’s original spaghetti western themes to Johnny Cash, to James Brown and 2PAK. It’s the kind of originality you expect from Quentin Tarantino, but frankly, “Django” gives new meaning to the term “black humor.”
“Django Unchained” opened Christmas Day at a theater near you.