Tarantino's latest revenge fantasy seems, at first blush, to one-up the audacity of its predecessor Inglourious Basterds. Instead of Jews taking on the Nazis and winning, here we have an escaped slave (Jamie Foxx) taking on Southern slave owners and winning.
But let's talk about audacity for a second. The plot of Basterds literally rewrote history. In comparison, Django Unchained is pretty routine, with our hero teaming up with a whimsical German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz, always a welcome presence) to track down Django's wife (Kerry Washington) and rescue her from the clutches of a sleazy Mississippi plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio, for once appearing to have actual fun). And... that's about it, really.
Whereas you had no idea where Basterds was going to go, and the film was loaded with lengthy and highly memorable set pieces, Django more or less putters along. There are some bursts of energy at the beginning and end, but ultimately the film feels overlong and weirdly unremarkable.
Mind you, I did enjoy it; it's blunt and witty, the performances are terrific, and Tarantino's affection for the grimy revisionist Westerns of the '70s imbues every frame. But considering its apparently shocking subject matter and flagrant use of the word "nigger" (which Redd Foxx could freely say on a network sitcom in the 1970s but is now verboten for everybody except for certain rappers and unrepentant racists), Django isn't all that eye-opening.
Without the challenges of all the foreign dialogue and the highly-trained European cast in Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino is almost on autopilot here, having fun with his camera zooms and oddball cameos, content that his film's incendiary topic will do all the heavy lifting. If Basterds was so effective because Tarantino forced himself out of his comfort zone, then Django is the lesser effort because he is so clearly back in familiar territory.