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Summers: Tarantino takes us back with 'Django Unchained'

Jan. 04, 2013 @ 10:34 AM

A short history of spaghetti westerns: The 1960s brought out a large group of inexpensively made cowboy movies produced overseas (mostly southern Europe), that were popular because they brought a new “take” on the familiar John Wayne/Randolph Scott westerns.

There was considerably more graphic violence, a lack of respect for the “Code of the West” honor factor, and sometimes a lot more fun.

Although Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, starring Clint Eastwood, comprised the three most familiar — both then and now — there were many others, including a very popular one called “Once Upon a Time in the West.”

The heroes of some of these films returned for tale after tale (much like Eastwood’s “Man with No Name”); chief among these was Franco Nero as “Django” and (a personal favorite of mine) Terence Hill as “Trinity.”

“Django,” directed by Sergio Corbucci, was such a hit that many other shoot ’em ups were thought to be Django movies, although the anti-hero was never named that.

Director Quentin Tarantino (“Pulp Fiction,” “Reservoir Dogs,” “Kill Bill” movies) takes us back to those thrilling days of yester-century with “Django Unchained,” his Tarantino-ized version starring Jamie Foxx (“Jarhead,” “Ray,” “Bait”).

Black cowboys are nothing new, and, even on screen, have a proud tradition. Musical entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. (a huge western fan and amateur six-gun twirler) appeared in several episodes as a gunslinger on “The Rifleman” and NFL legend Jim Brown started out in movies like “Rio Conchos” and “100 Rifles.” Woody Stroud (“Spartacus,” “Liberty Valance”) was a movie (as well as a real life) cowboy during the early days of Hollywood.

Foxx stars in a contemporary version, reminding me a lot of the cocksure Davis character from “The Rifleman.” Even though “Django Unchained” is almost three hours long, Tarantino has to speed the star’s transition from “yes massa” slave to back-talking killer, and the movie suffers for it.

For Django to wipe away a lifetime of fear and subservience in the short span of a long winter, to become that which would get him lynched in any town in the country at that time, quick draw or not, is just too hard to accept. Except that this is Hollywood.

But, Foxx still makes an excellent gunfighter, seeking revenge under the tutelage of a bounty hunter, played fantastically by Christoph Waltz (“Inglourious Basterds,” “Water for Elephants,” “The Three Musketeers”). Waltz character is fun to watch and plays well against all other players, being just the right “voice of reason” set against Django’s short fuse.

The villain is Leonardo DiCaprio (“Titanic,” “The Basketball Diaries,” “The Departed”) as plantation owner/slaver Calvin Candie, who would have been perfect for the part, had he been anyone else but Leonardo DiCaprio. Although he played the role to perfection, he just didn’t “look” like a super cruel human being.

The female lead is Kerry Washington (“Ray,” “The Last King of Scotland,” “The Fantastic Four”) as Broomhilda, the Holy Grail of abducted females. She plays the helpless wife of Django, and although a firebrand throughout, she still manages to look quite the beautiful damsel in distress at all the right moments.

On the second tier, we have Samuel L. Jackson (“Pulp Fiction,” “Shaft,” “Basic”) as Stephen, looking so much like a characterized version of Uncle Ben that I kept expecting him to break into a rice commercial in every scene (but, with his characteristic X-rated expletives).

We also have a nice back up performance by Dennis Christopher ( “Breaking Away,” “Chariots of Fire”) as a lawyer, and a hammy showing by Don Johnson ( “Miami Vice,” “Nash Bridges,” “Tin Cup”) as Big Daddy, a stereotypical plantation owner.

On the third tier, we have so many nods to the old movies and television westerns, that it is hard to keep count. You have to look closely, but older viewers may recognize Michael Parks ( “Then Came Bronson”), Tom Wopat ( “Dukes of Hazard”), Lee Horsley (“Matt Houston”), Don Stroud (“Police Woman”) and Bruce Dern (“Coming Home,” “The Cowboys,” “Running Silent”) who played so many third-tier cowboys while coming up in Hollywood that you could probably name the position after him.

It’s as though the Powers That Be got subsidized for hiring out of the Old (Movie) Folks Home.

More modern Bit Parts include Jonah Hill (“21 Jump Street,” “SuperBad,” “Moneyball”), Walton Goggins (“The Shield,” “Justified”) and James Russ (“Once Upon a Time in America,” “Vegas,” “Donnie Brasco”).

But, back to Tarantino’s movie. It is very well done and extremely entertaining. A fantastic western, if not a tribute, at least a representative of the Sam Peckinpah style of blood and guts that Eastwood, himself, tried to bring back into style with “Unforgiven.”

There is not quite enough Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” quirkiness inserted for it to be an Oscar contender, but too much Nuevo Cowpoke for it to be a classic. It lies somewhere in between, where those oldsters like myself, who aren’t on the same wavelength as Tarantino, will not flock to see it, and the younger audience of his target market will not “get” the inside jokes.

A prime example is where a bystander is talking to Django at the bar, and asks him his name. “Django…the D is silent,” says Foxx’s character.

“I know…” snickers the bystander. He knows because he is Franco Nero, the original Django. But most of the youngsters will not get the joke, unless they have read up on the history.

Still, “Django Unchained” is one of the most entertaining movies that has been put out this year, a year that is considered very profitable for Hollywood. Go see this movie with your significant other, and if she wants to run next door and watch Frenchmen sing of revolution, that’s OK, too.

It’s the only advantage of the modern multiplex.

Billy Summers is a freelance photographer who also reviews films for the Putnam Herald. He can be reached at summers855@yahoo.com.