Wednesday, July 29, 2009

On DVD: "The Inglorious Bastards"

So let’s get this out of the way first: Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming feature Inglorious Basterds is not a remake of the The Inglorious Bastards, the 1978 Italian-made World War II exploitation movie, directed by Enzo G. Casterelli. Oh, make no mistake—he’s seen it, and was inspired by the general idea, so he used the (misspelled) title for his WWII exploitation movie. It’s one of those stories of Tarantino “borrowing” from other movies (which drives his naysayers crazy). Now that we’ve got that out of the way, what of Casterelli’s film? Does it merit its new infamy, its hipster cache as a QT footnote? Will it inspire other filmmakers, as it did the geek supreme?

Eh, probably not. Admittedly, part of what makes Tarantino’s work so rich and unpredictable is the esoteric nature of his influences; he seems capable of finding something to like in damn near anything. But you can watch the pictures he’s pinpointed as favorites, and even junk like Switchblade Sisters and Coffy have a kind of lowbrow kinetic buzz that you can latch on to and ride out for an hour and a half. So it’s a little befuddling that he appears to have spent so much time obsessing over a second-rate Dirty Dozen knock-off.

The film begins with a gloriously cheeseball opening credit sequence; after the logo for “Capitol International” (was there any group that gave themselves more self-important names than 70s-era distributors of low-budget cinema?), we’re treated to the kind of opening titles where the credit “And Ian Bannen as ‘Col. Buckner’” fits right in (one pictures a long, thin theatrical poster with thumb-sized pictures of the cast across the bottom). We’re then introduced to what would be, I guess, our title characters: a crew of five American soldiers (though three of them are clearly not American) on their way to a military prison. Among them are cool, collected Lt. Yeager (Bo Svenson, who took over for Joe Don Baker in the Walking Tall movies and later played the reverend in Kill Bill) and badass brother Pvt. Canfield (Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, of Black Caesar, Three The Hard Way, and, later, From Dusk Till Dawn). On the way to the stockades, the convoy is attacked by Nazis; the five prisoners survive and escape, working their way through France to neutral Sweden and shooting up Nazis along the way.

For much of the first hour, the narrative is tediously repetitive—the group travels, is discovered and outed as Americans, has a big shoot-out in which all of their enemies are killed and not one of them gets a scratch (seriously, these guys have the best luck this side of The A-Team), and then the move on to the next discovery and shoot-out. Some of the vignettes are downright inexplicable—you may have thought you’d seen shameless, credibility-stretching nudity in an exploitation film before, but wait ‘till you get a load of the T&A sequence here. In fact, Castellari and his five (!) screenwriters find themselves marking time until they can get to the big third-act set piece; that’s the only reason I can come up with for the romantic subplot between cool, suave Tony (Peter Hooten) and nurse Nicole (Debra Berger), which is so half-hearted and undercooked, you wonder why they even bothered with it.

The dialogue isn’t terribly interesting, and poor Williamson gets stuck with the dopiest of it (to his gun, before another shoot-out: “Okay, baby, here we go again”), though he reportedly wrote much of his own stuff, so he has no one to blame but himself. But there’s a stilted, awkward quality to the non-action scenes, on top of the usual displacement expected from the dubbed dialogue of the mixed cast (even English-speaking Svenson and Williamson sound like they’re talking from another room). Acting is all over the place—most of the performers seem to have been allowed to mug wildly and play it to the second balcony.

However, it is probably safe to note that the target audience for a film like The Inglorious Bastards wasn’t there for the sturdy script construction, nuanced acting, or witty repartee. How’s the action, you ask? Pretty good. As mentioned, the shoot-outs of the first half get a little monotonous, and some of the filmmaking is clumsy—there’s a moment of laughably obvious stock footage (a paratrooper appears to fall from day in the sky to night on the ground), and Williamson’s fisticuffs during the takeover of a Nazi compound are poorly choreographed. But the big climax (involving exploding bridges, the takeover of a moving train, and plenty of gunplay) is well-staged; you get the feeling that most of the filmmakers’ energy went into the last twenty minutes. The shots are crisp, the editing is fast and sharp, and the mood is kept light by some great gag stunts (as when Michael Pergolani zips across a checkpoint on a motorcycle and plugs a bullet hole on the fuel tank with a wad of gum). The action is strangely bloodless (could they not afford real squibs?), and I’m pretty damn sure that we’re seeing a model train there at the end. But it’s still a fun sequence, and a decent capper to a fairly uneven shoot-‘em-up.

The Inglorious Bastards, contrary to what you may have been led to believe by its biggest and best-known admirer, is not a lost classic waiting to be rediscovered. It is a middling and sometimes downright clunky ‘70s actioner that would probably have long disappeared without the championing of QT. That said, it does have some energy to it, and a nice sense of style and pace. I doubt you’ll feel the need to revisit it, but if you’re in the mood for a slice of exploitation cheese, it’s worth a rental, as a curio if nothing else.

"The Inglorious Bastards" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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