First the good news. The cut of Inglourious Basterds Quentin Tarrantino unveiled at last night’s British premier was substantially different from the cut he took to Cannes. He’s taken out 12 minutes. Now for the bad news: he’s added another 17.
Inglourious Basterds has a few good things going for it, including a mesmerizing performance from Christoph Waltz as the chief baddie, but almost every scene goes on for too long. Tarantino still has a good sense of when to come in to a scene and when to come out; it’s the stuff in between that’s a problem. There are huge stretches of time in which nothing of significance happens -- it’s just a bunch of guys sitting around exchanging non-sequiturs. Tarantino has always been fond of these digressions and in Pulp Fiction he used them to great effect to build tension. Remember Samuel Jackson’s Biblical riffs before he unloads his gun? But here, they are simply too meandering to achieve the same result. In the opening scene, for instance, a German SS officer enters a French farmhouse where a family of Jews is being hidden beneath the floorboards and embarks on an interminable aria about the differences between various members of the animal kingdom and where they like to hold up. At first, you fear for the Jews’ lives, but after 20 minutes you want to scream: “Enough already. They’re under the floorboards.”
Tarantino’s propensity to stretch out each of the scenes in this way is symptomatic of a bigger problem which is that he appears to have lost all sense of what the audience wants to see. Inglourious Basterds is, according to Tarantino, his attempt to make a “guys on a mission” movie, but it doesn’t contain any of the scenes that make pictures like Where Eagles Dare and Guns of Naverone so entertaining.
For instance, he introduces a colourful cast of ne-er-do-wells in an apparent homage to The Dirty Dozen, but instead of redeeming themselves they are all killed off before they’ve had a chance to shine. In one scene, a beautiful double-agent (Diane Kruger in the Ingrid Pitt role) falls into the hands of the SS and you brace yourself for the inevitable rescue, but it never happens. Indeed, there’s scarcely a single act of heroism or derring-do in the film. I realise that Inglourious Basterds is supposed to be a pastiche of a “guys on a mission” movie, but you get the sense that Tarantino has ommitted all the guilty pleasures of the genre out of ignorance rather than design.
Perhaps a better word that "ignorance" would be “amnesia” because Tarantino certainly used to know how to give audiences pleasure. My favourite moment in Pulp Fiction is when Bruce Willis decides to rescue Ving Rhames from his sado-masochistic captors. As he descends the steps of the dungeon clutching the Samurai sword, my whole body was tingling with anticipatory glee. Once a director pulls off a trick like that -- has given you such exquisite pleasure -- you develop an attachment to him that borders on love and you’re prepared to cut him a lot of slack in the expectation that, one day, he’ll do it again. But Tarantino has failed to deliver over and over again and Inglourious Basterds, which would appear to be tailor made for the inclusion of such scenes, is no exception. Tarantino used to be able to make genre pictures that deconstructed a particular genre while simultaneously retaining its appeal. Now, he seems to be in the business of making B-movies that are denuded of all the things that make B-movies so much fun.
Part of the problem is laziness. Constructing a really exciting story requires a degree of intellectual effort that Tarantino seems no longer willing to make. Indeed, Inglourious Basterds feels like a first draft he’s dashed off over a coke-fuelled weekend, rather than a film that has been in development for 10 years. The story is choc full of design flaws that even the most low level movie executive could pinpoint. The main thrust of the narrative concerns two plots to assassinate Hitler that are unfolding simultaneously and, as the film builds to a climax, Tarantino cuts back and forth between the two storylines. But the fact that there are two plots to assassinate Hitler, rather than just one, means there’s no tension. You think, “Well, if one fails, at least there’s a fallback.” Where's the suspense? It’s the opposite of double jeopardy -- it’s no jeopardy.
As so often with Tarantino’s recent pictures, I found myself constantly slapping my forehead and thinking, “Why didn’t someone tell him that this particular scene needs fixing?” So much of the film doesn’t work -- and could have been fixed so easily, either in development or in the cutting room -- you begin to wonder what the producers were doing. On IMDb, 16 different people are credited with “producing” Inglourious Basterds, but not one of them appears to have had the balls to take Quentin aside and give him a decent set of notes. Where’s Harvey Scissorhands when you need him?
Perhaps he’s scared of him. Tarantino was at the Odeon Leicester Square last night and introduced the picture in a suitably nutty, over-the-top way, screaming into the microphone and then hurling it to the floor like a missile. He seemed like a bona fide loon and I can only imagine the kind of tirade he’s capable of unleashing if anyone dares to contradict him. One of the striking things about Inglourious Basterd is that Tarantino still seems like such a confident director -- he clearly believes that all his hair-brained choices are 100 per cent correct. He’s lost the talent, but retained the swagger. A better name for this movie would be The Ego Has Landed.