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Capone says the engrossing DJANGO UNCHAINED masterfully combines the horror of slavery with the joy of killing white folks!!!

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.

I'm not going to get into a discussion about whether or not the latest offering from writer-director Quentin Tarantino uses the N-word one too many times (or a hundred too many times). I suspect that the word is used as much in the movie (and in the same historical usage) as it was in the time period and place that is portrayed here: the deep South, two years prior to the Civil War. Maybe I'm wrong, and I'll admit it took me a while to get over the shock of hearing the word so many times. But DJANGO UNCHAINED isn't about a word; it's about the slave culture that gave birth to it.

Pay particular attention to the extraordinary performance by Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz, a German-born bounty hunter who enlists the help of a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx, as physically and emotionally committed as I've ever seen him in any role). Waltz played a notorious Jew hunter in Tarantino's last film, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, and in that work, he uttered the word Jew with such venom that it almost burned your ears to hear it. But when Schultz and most other characters use the N-word in DJANGO UNCHAINED, it's simply the word of choice back in the day. Intent is the key, and while there are certainly plenty of characters here that flat out hate blacks across the board, for the most part, the word is not used as hate speech. At least that's what I tell myself to sleep better at night.

Although you can certainly look at DJANGO UNCHAINED as an atypical Western (or more rightly, a Southern), a revenge film or an adventure picture, I saw it as a buddy cop movie in which Django and Schultz are thrown together because Schultz is chasing a pair of outlaws known as the Brittle Brothers, and Django is the only person who knows what they look like. Django agrees to help track down the outlaws if Schultz, in turn, agrees to find Django's long-lost wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from whom he was separated after the two tried to escape.

Django's longing for his beloved consumes his soul, and we get visions of her (both in flashback and in fantasy) as seen through his eyes, which show her as a stunning vision of beauty and the source of his greatest pain. After the Brittles are dispensed with, Schultz realizes that having a freed slave as a partner has its advantages—if only for the shock value, since blacks were not allowed to ride horses at the time—and as the two go in search for Broomhilda, they also collect a few more bounties along the way.

The reason I say the film is a buddy film is that the best moments are when Django and Schultz are simply trotting along, learning from each other. Django is learning everything from how to be cunning to vocabulary words, while Schultz gets some understanding of what it's like for his companion to be seen as something less than human. Schultz is smart enough to use this to their advantage, since very often their targets don't perceive a threat from a man introduced as Schultz's valet. To others, Django is regarded as a free slave who can say and do whatever a white man can, and this angers so many in the south that Schultz can get the upper hand while the criminal is busy trying to contemplate Django. It's a wonderful set of games that the two men play, and watching them set each other up for the next "dead or alive" bounty is a great deal of fun.

The film takes a dramatic shift into the land of the bizarre when we're introduced to Broomhilda's owner, plantation owner and certifiable crazy person Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Through Candie we are introduced to all sorts of Southern traditions, including the almost too extreme to witness Mandingo fighting, where two slaves (of different owners) fight bare-knuckle style in a room while the owners cheer and jeer on. The particular fight featured here is savage stuff, and it's clear that these battles are sometimes fought to the death. There was a time in Django's life where seeing a fight like this might not have phased him, but after his time with Schultz, he's almost too disgusted by the practice to watch. To get his wife, Django and Schultz pose as men looking to purchase a Mandingo fighter from Candie, and the offer intrigues the Candie-man enough to invite the two men into his home.

At the Candie plantation, we meet one of the most despicable characters in any film made in 2012, and Samuel L. Jackson would have it no other way as he portrays Stephen, the balding, white-haired head servant, who sees Django as the ultimate threat to his very existence. He's suspicious of Django and Schultz from the minute they step foot on the property, and he refuses to give the freed slave any manner of respect. Jackson hasn't eaten a character alive quite like this in some time. And in one particular scene, we get a much clearer sense of what the true master-servant relationship is between Stephen and Candie. If DJANGO UNCHAINED has a real villain, it is Stephen, who enjoys his position and life and will do anything to defend it.

I haven't really talked about the violence in DJANGO UNCHAINED, but make no mistake, that's not because there's none to talk about. Quite the contrary, the film is armed to the teeth with all manner of horrific gun wounds, a man torn apart by four horses, whippings, and every kind of brutality. Blood flows and splatters freely, but in the end, it's not among the film's more enduring or memorable aspects. What rules here are the performances, especially from Waltz, Jackson and DiCaprio—which is not to say that Foxx isn't quite good here. It is not his normal approach to any material to be so reserved and stoic, which of course makes it all the more alarming when he cuts loose in fits of murder.

Tarantino's usual filmic references are there in both story, casting and music cues, but in many ways, these touchstones are secondary and less interesting with each passing work. I'm not saying spotting the original Django, Franco Nero, in one scene didn't make me giddy, but in many cases these moments took me out of the film more than they drew me in. The strange array of cameos is also hit (Walton Goggins) and miss (sorry, Jonah Hill). Despite a few bloated sequences toward the middle and very end, DJANGO UNCHAINED spends most of its extended running time coiled tight like a rattlesnake ready to lunge. Sometimes it just makes your heart race a little faster from all of the excitement; other times is strikes you dead on. Either way, this creature is a fucking blast.

-- Steve Prokopy
"Capone"
capone@aintitcool.com
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