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Eye for an eye

Movies | Jews take on Nazis in ultraviolent revenge fantasy

Issue: "The Purge," Sept. 12, 2009

Two things make the utter lunacy of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds worth watching for dedicated adult cinephiles with strong stomachs (and pretty much nobody else). The first is Tarantino's incredible flair for the lengthy verbal jousts that precede the bloodletting, and the second is the movie's Big Idea: the Jews finally take revenge on Hitler.

The writer/director kicks things off by introducing astonishing Christoph Waltz, who plays the film's villain, and a legion of very angry Jewish soldiers, led by their crazy Tennesseean squad leader, Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), as they get ready to kill, maim, and rewrite history left, right, and center.

Inglourious Basterds is a genre riff-an R-rated, curse-filled, ultraviolent spaghetti Western version of The Pianist-that is trying to break the mold. Tarantino is the only filmmaker who could ever make this work, and even he has a hard time striking the right balance: We never know whether to snicker or cringe, and the anachronisms threaten to push the movie into cartoon territory. What he's attempting, though, is halfway to admirable: He wants to make the Jews as tough as the Nazis.

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On this score, Tarantino more than succeeds-one particular Basterd (Eli Roth) is terrifying, menacing prisoners with a baseball bat, and that's just until he can get a tommy gun. Tarantino makes the Jews vs. Nazis contest a battle of equals, in much the same way that Joel Surnow levels the playing field for the terrorists and counterterrorists on Fox's 24. But, rather than give his characters moments of doubt, as Surnow does, Tarantino puts the onus on us, suggesting that by rooting for the Basterds, we're condoning their actions. Given the movie's rock-'em-sock-'em style, it's a weirdly sobering thought.

"We will be cruel to the Germans," Raine informs his men at the beginning of the film, "and through our cruelty, they will know who we are." I liked the movie. Who does that make me, then?


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