When I was growing up reading comics, Marvel had a book that I bought sporadically (and, in retrospect, I wish I’d picked it up more) called What If...?, and the concept was to tell single-issue, “alternate universe” stories that diverted from famous (as well as obscure) stories, like “What if Spider-Man joined the Fantastic Four?”, a twist on Spidey’s unsuccessful bid to join the FF in Amazing Spider-Man #1. Most of the fun of the What If...? books was due to the fact that they weren’t chained to Marvel continuity, so crazy things could happen, usually involving the deaths of major characters (one issue I remember reading, “What if the Punisher killed Daredevil?”, included not just Daredevil’s death, but also the demise of Aunt May, Spider-Man and eventually the Punisher himself), and that unpredictability was the main thing that made the books fun in a way that no other comics were. Superhero stories already take place in a realm of fantasy, but What If...? took that fantasy to another level.
Which brings me, in typically meandering (and comic book-related!) fashion, to Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s World War II What If...? story. It’s already topped the box office and garnered plenty of critical acclaim, but as a movie buff and Tarantino fan (also, as a guy with a movie blog) I have to add my voice to the chorus singing this movie’s praises. Inglourious Basterds is an absolute blast. It’s the film where Tarantino combines the promise hinted at in Jackie Brown – still considered by some to be his best film, at least pre-Basterds – with the flair for balls-out action he displayed in his genre diversions Kill Bill and Death Proof, though to be honest, I was actually struck with how little violence is actually in Inglourious Basterds. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still got moments that will have some people cringing – Tarantino’s never shied away from violence, and more than one Nazi scalping is shown in grisly detail – but much of the action in Inglourious Basterds is verbal. That’s not a complaint either, as the dialogue is easily among some of Tarantino’s finest.
Speaking of finest, I also have to jump on the “Just give Christoph Waltz the Oscar now” bandwagon. He’s utterly amazing as the film’s villain, Col. Landa, a.k.a. the Jew Hunter. Tarantino’s always had a knack for finding excellent, little-known actors, and Waltz may be his best discovery yet. His performance as the surprisingly pleasant Nazi officer (who can turn to terrifying violence on a dime) is easily one of the best of the year, and right now Waltz appears to be a Heath Ledger-like slam dunk.
Tarantino’s known for filling his films with references to other movies, with the most obvious example being Kill Bill, which is more of a 4-hour homage to genres Tarantino loves than a proper movie on its own merits (but that’s also why I personally love it more than his other movies), but Inglourious Basterds is his gushiest love letter to the cinema yet. It’s dripping with movie references (the climax is in a movie theater, one of the characters is a former film critic, another a German movie star...there’s easily a dozen similar references in there, if not more). While they never threaten to overwhelm the actual plot, Inglourious Basterds is as much about the movies as it is World War II or Nazis or anything else. And while I’m reluctant to spoil too many details about the story, Inglourious Basterds is also Tarantino at his most audacious: what other filmmaker would have the stones to make a movie that changes the ending of World War II?
A few months ago, I was resigned to seeing Inglourious Basterds purely as part of my personal duty as a movie fan, but I wasn’t really excited about it at all (World War II movies have never been my thing). Imagine my surprise that it turned out to be a potential masterpiece by one of the best filmmakers working today, and proof that just because a movie’s set in the darkest period of the 20th century that doesn’t mean it can’t be one of the most fun movies of the year.