Brad Pitt, right, plays Lt. Aldo Raine in "Inglourious Basterds," a tall tale of a group of Jewish-American soldiers on a mission to collect 100 Nazi scalps each during World War II. (Weinstein Co.)
Fanciful, gory, entertaining and a bit too brilliant for its own good, "Inglourious Basterds" bears the good news that writer-director Quentin Tarantino is still a thrilling filmmaker along with the slight irritation of his ongoing immaturity.
It's all there in the purposely useless mangling of the title's spelling, the sense of audaciousness with little real point, the sweet spirit of silly rebellion. It would be enough to make you want to smack the guy if his imagination wasn't such a stirring brew of surprises.
"Basterds" is a Tarantino salute to spaghetti westerns via World War II, filled with humor and outstanding performances from people you may never have seen or noticed before, most notably the amazing Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, playing Col. Hans Landa, a Nazi detective, of sorts, who hunts Jews and collaborators in France.
The film's one big-name star is, of course, Brad Pitt, and America's golden boy does seem to be having a hoot of a time as Lt. Aldo Raine, the leader of a group of Jewish-American soldiers, nicknamed the Basterds, plopped down behind enemy lines with the mission of collecting 100 Nazi scalps each.
And since this is a Tarantino movie, the audience gets to watch some of those scalps come off. Luckily, that's not all that's going on.
Because this is not really World War II; this is Tarantino's World War II, a fantasy world in which he can rearrange history any way he likes to fit the needs of his film. And rearrange he does, masterfully bringing the brutality of war to the fantasy of cinema in a manner that's a literal blast.
As with "Pulp Fiction" and "Kill Bill," "Basterds" plays out in a series of chapters, which introduce the main characters and their objectives, beginning with Landa's silky smooth and completely terrifying interrogation of a French farmer.
The film flips back and forth between factions while building to its unlikely climax, the premiere of a German film in a French movie house run by a Jewish woman (Melanie Laurent) who has escaped detection.
Somehow this also involves a German movie actress (Diane Kruger, who receives Tarantino's well-known foot fetish attention) working undercover for British intelligence.
If this all sounds a bit convoluted, it's not really; but it is a bit much. "Basterds" runs more than two-and-a-half hours without really needing to, and a long -- though still quite good -- scene in an underground pub probably should have been either shortened or excised. Tarantino obviously, and understandably, loves his own stuff, but a bit of containment might have helped.
Still, the underlying problem with "Basterds" isn't its length: It's the repetition of Tarantino's vengeance theme, which he has now pounded through "Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction," "Kill Bill" and the wretched "Death Proof," and the lack of real feeling at the film's core.
At his absolute operatic best -- think the end of "Kill Bill" -- Tarantino can synthesize violence, madness and vulnerability into grand reflection that's both visceral and emotional. In "Basterds" he's just showing his technical prowess and wit.
Luckily, he's got plenty of both and the result is great entertainment for those who embrace his twisted ways. "Basterds" is not great Tarantino but it's solidly good Tarantino, and that's sweet news for his fans.
Brad Pitt may be the biggest movie star in the world, but that doesn't guarantee "Inglourious Basterds" will be a hit. Check out the hot-and-cold domestic earnings for Pitt's last five films:
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (2008):
"Burn After Reading" (2008):
"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (2007):
"Oceans Thirteen" (2007):