We've Seen Inglourious Basterds!

QT's WWII epic debuts in Cannes, and...

Empire has just seen Quentin Tarantino's eagerly-awaited WWII flick, Inglourious Basterds, and it's rather brilliant. Every bit as idiosyncratic as the spelling of its title, it's a wonderfully-acted movie that subverts expectation at every turn. And it may represent the most confident, audacious writing and directing of QT's career.

Forget what you think you know is such a cliché, but here it more than applies. Tarantino has made a career out of subverting expectations – this is the man who made a heist flick without a heist, after all – but he’s outdone himself with Basterds. It’s an action movie that has barely any action. The Basterds themselves, including Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine, are off-screen for long periods of time. And it takes wild liberties with history.

But that’s all set up by the opening title card (the film is divided into five chapters), ‘Once Upon A Time In… Nazi-Occupied France’. Not only does that allow Tarantino to use Spaghetti Western-esque musical cues and swipe the odd shot and convention from the likes of Sergio Leone, but it frees him up to take those liberties. This is a fairytale world, in which American soldiers can ghost behind enemy lines, scalp hundreds of Nazis and never get caught. And in which… no, we won’t go there. Not yet. But the ending is so thrillingly audacious that this reporter laughed out loud when it happened. Even when, having read the script, I knew it was coming.

The performances are superb across-the-board. Pitt is hilarious throughout, lending his lines that air of cocky movie-star insouciance that was a touchstone of his turns in the Ocean’s movies. But the standouts for me were Michael Fassbender, who deserves to become a star on the basis of his turn as British officer Lt. Archie Hicox, and Christoph Waltz, as the movie’s villain, Col. Hans Landa, aka The Jew Hunter.

A complex creation, refined, calculating and yet utterly monstrous when the time comes, Landa was the role that Tarantino struggled to fill, so much so that he might have had to pass on making the movie had he not filled it. But in Waltz, he’s found gold. He may look like an evil Rob Brydon, but the Austrian actor is fantastic: oleaginous, chilling and often devilishly charming. He may be a shoo-in for a Best Supporting Oscar nom, and even though it’s mighty early yet, he could become the first actor to win for a Tarantino film.

There are flaws, of course – what film doesn’t have flaws? But they may be exaggerated depending on your feelings about Tarantino. Some of his Grindhouse flourishes – large captions stamped on screen, the usual flirting with structure and chronology, offbeat musical cues (a David Bowie track shows up at one point) and the sudden introduction of a hip narrator (Samuel L. Jackson) – may irk some, but this movie-movie approach has been Tarantino’s forte since Uma Thurman drew a box on the screen in Pulp Fiction.

It’s certainly very talky, and there’s no doubt that Tarantino is in love with the sound of his characters’ voices, but QT dialogue is so much better than most other screenwriters that it’s hard to quibble. If all scenes in movies are about control, Tarantino understands that perhaps better than anybody, and some of the scenes here – the opening exchange between Landa and a French dairy farmer, and the Reservoir Dogs-esque scene in French bar, La Louisiane – are masterclasses in how to switch control from character to character. Indeed, both scenes are as tense as anything Tarantino has ever done in his career.

Remember, though: this is not the official Empire review, simply a reaction to this morning’s screening. Empire’s official verdict may differ from mine, so bear that in mind. Click here to see my video reaction and all the Cannes video blogs so far.