Quentin Tarantino’s a great writer of dialogue, and no one’s more convinced of the fact than Quentin Tarantino. The ratio of talk to action — not gun fights or explosions, but just people doing stuff — in “Inglourious Basterds” is, generously, nine to one. Again and again, characters sit down over drinks (whiskey, champagne, milk), and the stakes may be high, but the conversations are meandering and lengthy, and no matter how clever they may get, they end up defeated by their own pace and their writer’s inability to let anything go. Even the opening scene, a confrontation between Nazi Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) and a French farmer hiding a Jewish family which is supposed to be a slow build of tension and dread, is derailed by digressions about rats and nicknames. The film’s two hours and 40 minutes long, and could be shorn of an hour just by picking up the tempo.
One of the reasons “Inglourious Basterds” is so dialogue-laden is that at least half the scenes are there just to introduce and show off a character. Here’s Landa, whose abilities of detection have earned him the sobriquet “The Jew Hunter.” Here’s Lt. Aldo “The Apache” Raine (Brad Pitt), getting ready to lead a squadron of Jewish Americans on a secret mission to terrorize Nazi’s and take their scalps. Here’s Sylvester Groth playing Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, with Daniel Brühl playing Frederick Zoller, a war hero who’s starring as himself in Goebbels’ new film, and who’s fallen for French cinema owner Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), actually a Jew in hiding whose family was slaughtered. Here’s Sgt. Donnie Donowitz (Eli Roth), “The Bear Jew,” beating a Nazi officer to death with a baseball bat; here’s Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), British film critic turned agent; here’s Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), German actress and Allied spy, and here are Mike Myers, B.J. Novak, Julie Dreyfus and Samm Levine in smaller roles. By the time that’s all out of the way, the film pretty much just skips to the end, a succinct orgy of violence and destruction that’s not sufficient payoff for everything that came before, even if Hitler gets, with minor historical inaccuracy, shot in the face dozens of times.
Despite the title and billing, it’s Laurent and Waltz that have the largest roles. The Basterds really don’t get the majority of the movie’s focus and the varied characters generally don’t have much opportunity to interact — “Inglourious Basterds” is an “assembling the crew” film that doesn’t allow its crew to hang out on or do much, and if you want to nitpick, Laurent’s character would have achieved what was accomplished by the time the credits roll all by herself, making the whole international intrigue angle superfluous.
There are still plenty of crackerjack shots, from a “Searchers”‘s quote to a camera following rapidfire exchanges between interrogator, translator and interrogatee to the grandiose up-in-flames finale, with a lingering movie projection shimmering across the smoke, the screen long gone. And the music is, as always with Tarantino, exhilarating. But I wouldn’t even call “Inglourious Basterds” minor Tarantino — it’s flat-out tiresome, and from a commercial perspective, incredibly dicey. If this is the pony the Weinstein Company has picked, well, bless ’em, because it’s hard to see this one pulling in crowds once word gets around.