At this point, you are either a Quentin Tarantino fan or you aren’t. I don’t think there is much of a gray area there anymore. It’s also safe to say that if you are a Tarantino fan, then you aren’t easily offended by excessive blood and guts. That’s a good thing because going into his latest film, Django Unchained (2012), you definitely need to leave the political correctness at the door if you are going to enjoy yourself. As it’s been well publicized, there is very intense language in this film that may be upsetting to some. Director Spike Lee has publicly criticized Tarantino for his use of the “N” word. However, he seems to fall short of speaking out against the actors who use the word in the film. Not to mention other African American actors and celebrities, such as Oprah Winfrey, who are praising the film. It is, after all, just a movie and if Tarantino didn’t use it, there would be those who would accuse him of sugar coating what was a commonly used word during that time period. It’s our history and we need to embrace it, learn from it, grow and move forward. Okay, off my soapbox. At this point, if you can deal with the language, then you’re ready for a really good time.
From the opening seconds of Django Unchained, I knew I was in for a ride. We start off with a pre-1976 version of the Columbia Pictures logo (with some minor color adjustments) then jump right into the theme song sung by Luis Bacalov. Yes, eagle ears will know that this is the same theme song used in the original Django (1966). The movie is an homage to the countless spaghetti westerns that used the Django name but really it’s the original from 1966 that gets its’ due here. Tarantino is a movie buff and a fan like all of us. His movies are full of references and cameos; his soundtracks are a lineup of both easily recognizable songs as well as some of the most obscure you’ll ever hear. That said, here’s my official disclaimer now. I cannot cover every single cameo or reference in this article. I simply don’t have enough space. However, I will mention the high points and the theme song was an instant win for me. It sounds so much like an Italian Western theme that you can’t help but be pulled into the movie.
Our two main characters are also introduced in the opening moments. Jamie Foxx (Ray and Law Abiding Citizen) is Django, a slave in a chain gang. The movie is set two years prior to the start of the Civil War and slavery is still an accepted way of life. Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Basterds) is Dr. King Schultz, dentist in name only and bounty hunter by trade. Tarantino is the master at making a simple speech turn into a five-minute diatribe and Waltz can handle that better than just about anybody on screen today. He’s there to negotiate the sale of Django as he needs him to identify the wanted Brittle brothers. Of course, Django’s owners aren’t selling and this is when we discover just how bad Dr. Schultz can be. He’s not quite the quirky dentist who likes to introduce his horse. Bullets and blood go flying and our adventure is ready to go. As the two men talk, Schultz discovers Django is married to a woman named Broomhilda, played by Kerry Washington (Ray). She just happens to speak German as she was once owned by a German. Yes, you need to leave common sense checked at the door along with your sensitivities.
As our story progresses, the appearances of Hollywood stars begins to add up. We have Lee Horsley (TV’s Matt Houston) as Sheriff Gus, who is also a wanted man, and Tom Wopatt (TV’s Dukes of Hazzard) as U.S. Marshall Gill Tatum. As Django and Schultz travel to a plantation owned by Big Daddy, played by Don Johnson (TV’s Miami Vice), we also gets flashbacks from Django’s previous owner Carrucan (Bruce Dern from a million big screen and TV westerns). As the Brittle brothers go down, Schultz establishes a partnership that will ultimately lead them to Calvin Candie, now the owner of Django’s wife. Candie is played marvelously by Leonardo DiCaprio (Inception and Shutter Island). Now, most people know I am not a big DiCaprio fan but he can be entertaining and he definitely puts in a great performance here. On a side note, this marks the first time in 16 years he didn’t receive top billing. Another outstanding performance comes from Samuel L. Jackson (The Avengers and Pulp Fiction) as Stephen, the man who maintains order over the house. He is very much the proverbial “Uncle Tom” character. So much so, you just want to cheer when he gets his rightfully deserved less than pleasant demise.
There are so many references and cameos it’s impossible to mention them all. However, let’s run down some of the additional cameos. There is Jonah Hill as one of the Bag Heads; Russ and Amber Tamblyn as Son of a Gunfighter and Daughter of a Son of a Gunfighter (in reference to earlier films in their careers); Ted Neeley (Jesus Christ Superstar), Zoe Bell (Death Proof) and Tom Savini (make-up legend and way too many movies to list) as trackers; an uncredited Robert Carradine (Revenge of the Nerds) as another tracker; and Quentin Tarantino himself as a mining employee (who also is given the best death scene in the whole movie). Easily, the best cameo for me is one that will get missed by many younger fans. Franco Nero, the original Django, appears in the scene where Jamie Foxx describes how the name is spelled and that the “D” is silent. Nero simply responds, “I know”. Nero also received special recognition at the beginning of the movie for his friendly participation.
Django Unchained is great but not perfect. It is too long and could have had about 30 minutes edited out and been a better movie. After we have the final scene with Schultz and Candie, it seems a little anti-climactic. There are a couple of great scenes after that but it did slow down a great deal. We also have some overly long segments because Tarantino loves to write. There are some anachronisms that may or may not be intentional. For example, the appearance of the KKK years before it actually started or the phrase “Sold American”, which wasn’t coined until the 1920s. Of course, hearing a Jim Croce song in a western isn’t expected either, so you really have to just go with the flow in a Tarantino film.
We don’t get enough westerns today. It’s a genre that seemly died out as the next generation became more engrossed with sci-fi and westerns just weren’t as cool anymore. However, I’m a child of the 70s and grew up loving shows like The Big Valley and The High Chaparral, so I’m always good for the old west. Isn’t it ironic though that when we do get a western, like 2010’s True Grit or 2007’s 3:10 To Yuma, they become smash hits. I highly recommend Django Unchained. It’s entertaining, intense and well worth the ride. Just leave your sensitivities at the door.