Seventeen years into Quentin Tarantino's career, you should know what to expect from one of his films: it will be long. It will be talky. It will have sporadic moments of sudden, gruesome violence. It will be loaded with pop culture references. It will feature a retro soundtrack that is hipper than hip.
And so it continues with Inglourious Basterds, a misleadingly marketed film that would have you believe that it is a fast-paced war epic with Brad Pitt in every scene. In fact, Tarantino started developing a remake of the little-seen 1978 "warsploitation" movie The Inglorious Bastards around the time he finished Jackie Brown in 1997, envisioning it as an homage to classic tough guy war movies such as The Big Red One, with a troop of American soldiers going on dramatic missions across Nazi-infested Europe.
Over a decade later, his story has transformed into something of a heist movie, involving a plot to kill several high-ranking Nazi officials at a film premiere in Paris in 1944. Call it Quentin Tarantino's Valkyrie, if you will. Pitt and his titular team of Nazi-killing Jews are only part of the ensemble: Inglourious Basterds is as much about a vindictive French Jew (Mélanie Laurent) and a suave if despicable Nazi "Jew hunter" (Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, who steals every scene he's in), as well as the various characters - historical and fictional - who come into contact with them.
Staged in chapters, the script for Inglourious Basterds is surprisingly tight. Every moment has an eventual payoff, beginning with the opening scene, in which Waltz quietly interrogates a French farmer hiding Jews in his house and strangely switches to English in the middle of their discussion. It seems like a gimmick meant to segue the dialogue into English for American audiences, but there's a method to the madness - and in fact, around two-thirds of the dialogue in Inglourious Basterds is in subtitled German and French. It's a nice bit of authenticity in a film that clearly doesn't give a damn about historical accuracy.
Some scenes are quite long, but because each moment in the story has a purpose, and because the cast is so good, and because there is a strong curiosity about just what will happen, the film never drags despite its two and a half hour length.
In my opinion, this is Tarantino's most satisfying film, and certainly his best since his debut feature Reservoir Dogs. It's smart, it's funny, it's entertaining, and while it's clearly a Tarantino movie, the setting and even the movie references add a fresh spin to his typical shenanigans - no name-checking 1970s drive-in fare here; instead you'll find nods to Leni Riefenstahl mountain climbing pictures, Fritz Lang's Metropolis, and America's own WWII propaganda star, war hero-cum-matinee idol Audie Murphy (re-envisioned as a young German soldier who is both subject and leading man in the movie set to premiere in Paris).
Ultimately, Inglourious Basterds is, more than any of his earlier films, about Quentin Tarantino's mad love for cinema. If you're not into his work, this one may not change your mind. But I've been on the fence about the quality and integrity of his output ever since Pulp Fiction came out, and I was happily surprised at how much I admired this film.