In its own culture-critical, cracked-out, explosively overblown way, "Django Unchained" represents Quentin Tarantino's idea of a warm and fuzzy comic romance -- with graphic killings, torture, racism and anachronistic rap tunes playing under scenes of a pre-Civil War America.
At its heart -- and "Django Unchained" possesses a relatively big one for a Tarantino movie -- this spicy American SpaghettiO western tells of a quest to find love mixed with a classic buddy/road adventure, a gory revenge tale and a tribute to both personal empowerment and questionable taste.
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"Django Unchained"★ ★ ★ ★
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Johnson, Bruce Dern
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Other: A Weinstein Company release. Rated R for severe violence, language, nudity. 166 minutes
It begins when Dr. King Schultz, a presumptive dentist played by the never-less-than-compelling Christoph Waltz, intercepts a group of slaves on their way to market.
Schultz turns out to be an extremely learned man with a vast vocabulary that he wields like a club. By trade, he has become a bounty hunter.
He's tracking the wanted Brittie brothers. When he discovers one of the slaves, Django (Jamie Foxx), has seen the brothers and can identify them, Schultz proposes they go into business together and track them down.
Oh, but first, Schultz must dispatch the slavers (which he gleefully does) that are none too happy he wants to take away Django, one of their involuntary charges.
Django (the D is silent, FYI) accepts Schultz's offer and off they go.
But Django is blunt about his ultimate goal, to find his wife, tagged with the hilarious name of Broomhilda von Shaft, a mashup of German myth with Richard Roundtree's 1970s blaxploitation anti-hero.
The fetching Kerry Washington plays Broom, and she constantly pops up along the roadside or in fields as a reminder of what this story is really about: a man on a mission to reclaim his wife, whipped and sold by Django's former owner (Bruce Dern, phoning in one of the briefest cameos in movie history).
After a lot of traveling, and lengthy, clever exchanges that precede killing, Schultz and Django finally arrive at the Southern plantation called Candyland, in honor of its self-absorbed, racist owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio in an uncharacteristically villainous role).
Candie owns Broomhilda, and the two bounty hunters realize that they can't tip their hands that they know her or want to secure her freedom.
So, Django and Schultz concoct an intricate con designed to get Candie to kick Broomhilda in as a bonus to a much bigger business deal.
Being a Tarantino movie, of course, "Django" never goes where we think it will.
Violence comes in short, savage bursts, with revolvers spitting out explosive flames, bodies being blown into adjacent rooms and insanely huge blood squibs showering red stains everywhere, as if in a Grand Guignol production of a Shakespearean revenge tragedy.
Tarantino refuses to dance lightly on the slavery issue. He goes positively flamenco on it, setting up the intellectually enlightened, German-born Schultz as the movie's moral center, one that sees America's slave industry as corrupt.
Tarantino paints slavery's perpetrators as buffoons, especially in a knee-slapping, Mel Brooksian sequence where would-be KKK members complain about the poor design and craftsmanship of their hastily manufactured white hoods, the symbol of their racial supremacy.
Foxx brings an emotional complexity to the role of Django that original 1966 "Django" star Franco Nero (who appears in a cameo here) never needed.
Foxx's former slave may be driven by rage, hatred and vengeance, but he's too smart to let baser motivations overpower his intelligence and cloud his judgment.
Waltz, of course, shot to instant popularity after appearing as Tarantino's Jew-hunting Nazi officer in the history-revising "Inglourious Basterds," and his performance here is even more inspired as a good guy capable of very bad actions.
Samuel L. Jackson's frightening role as Stephen may be more inspired, but on the other end of evil.
As Candie's right-hand slave, Stephen has sold out his race and his conscience for the comforts that come with ruling Candyland as the owner's trusted disciple. Jackson plays the role with white tussles of hair, ominous dialogue and a dead heart.
"Django" ranks as one of 2012's freshest treats, a comically overwrought exploitation film infused with highbrow ideas and crammed with a kajillion cameo appearances by such stars as Don Johnson, special effects master Tom Savini, Jonah Hill, Sacha Baron Cohen and Tarantino himself.