If it wasn't clear to audiences before, Quentin Tarantino makes his love for Exploitation Cinema and European filmmaking of the 1960s and 70s blatantly obvious in 'Django Unchained.' Of course, his prior feature — if not his entire canon — also made this fairly clear by turning the little-known Euro-war subgenre (affectionately called "Macaroni Combat") into an enthralling, highly-stylized masterpiece. In fact, all his films have consistently been love-letters to that bygone era, masterfully infusing music and genre modes of the period into beautifully-designed, operatic spectacles of postmodern art, which in their own right feel hypnotically original. Meaning, one's acquaintance or intimate familiarity with those movies are not requisite for enjoying Tarantino's work, but it sure as heck makes for a greater appreciation of what he's accomplishing.
For his latest genre mash-up, but unlike his previous movies, Tarantino calls upon and taps into a pre-established legacy — one with a long-standing cult following, an existing character mythos, and over thirty feature films to prove it — to create a seemingly straightforward "Spaghetti" western. The character was first introduced in 1966 in Sergio Corbucci's 'Django' with Franco Nero, who makes a deliciously clever cameo appearance here as a mysterious gentleman with very few words, in the titular role, but has since been played by different actors. Django is the epitome of the western anti-hero archetype, an individual who shows little emotion and expresses even fewer words. He walks that thin line between good and evil while watching out only for himself, but he still holds to a sense of justice. And when he's wronged, his vengeance is brutal, violent, and ferocious.
Tarantino continues the tradition of blood and retribution with Jamie Foxx as our eponymous hero, adding a spirited swagger to the personality that's terrifically memorable. Making the connection between the cult western classic and Tarantino's smorgasbord of genre delights all the more apparent, the film opens in similar style to Corbucci's — big, bright red fonts and the same theme song by Rocky Roberts & Luis Bacalov — mostly staring at our enigmatically skilled gunslinger from behind while walking through a desolate landscape. Here, Foxx carries a metaphorical coffin on his disfigured back, but his face shows its immense weight is far more than skin-deep. The damage has already been done to him; it's only a matter now of watching how he will inflict the proper punishment to his victimizers, which in this case is the whole slave trade of the antebellum American South.
The man who helps Django out of bondage and towards a path of emancipation is a smooth-talking dentist turned bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz, played with whimsically comical enthusiasm by the wonderful Christoph Waltz. After teaching him the ways of the gun, Schultz decides to accompany Django on his quest to free his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), because he sees the journey as similar to the Siegfried legend. Unfortunately, her current master is a plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio at his finest), who has a terrifying mean-streak that makes even Schultz quake in his boots. Even more disturbing is Samuel L. Jackson as Candie's senior house slave, Stephen, an Uncle-Tom type with an allegiance to the order of things that's truly chilling.
Tarantino does terrifically at balancing comedy, violent action, and engaging drama, centering on this romantic element of hopefully seeing Django reunited with his Broomhilda. (The original archetype is never given such an opportunity because his wife's death was essentially what turned him into a cold-blooded killer.) He also seasons his vision of the Italian western with dashes of Blaxploitation, but 'Django Unchained' is a callous, steely-eyed genre attraction with heart, and he sprinkles the whole affair with nods to several great classics for hardcore fans. Small touches, from the red bandanas and a lowly hunchback, to references to 'The Great Silence,' 'They Call Me Trinity,' 'Day of Anger' and 'Keoma,' are on constant display throughout. Walton Goggins, in particular, has one scene-chewing moment that seems like a cross between Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper.
In some ways, 'Django Unchained' is typical modern revisionism of American history, especially through the eyes of Tarantino. But that is the charm of his films — stories of history told more through myth and legend than accuracy. And this example of spectacularly entertaining hyperbole of the distant past is ultimately no different, but it's a thoroughly engrossing vision of what we imagine to be the antebellum South and the Wild West.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Starz and Anchor Bay offer 'Django Unchained' on Blu-ray in a variety of packages, starting with a two-disc combo pack which contains a code for an UltraViolet Digital Copy available most everywhere.
The other choices are store-exclusive three-disc combo packs with the third disc containing an extra featurette that's exclusive only to that package. Best Buy has a digipak design housing the three discs inside a tri-fold box with clear-plastic panels, and the featurette is "Around the Globe with Django Unchained: Conversations with the Filmmakers and Cast." Target offers the steelbook edition, and the third disc has a featurette titled "The Stars of Django Unchained Unleashed at Comic-Con 2012."
For this review, we're looking at the Wal-Mart exclusive with the standard Blu-ray packaging and an attractive cardboard slipcover. The first is a Region A locked, BD-50 disc while the second is a DVD-9, and both are sit comfortably on a flipper in the center. The third is a Region A locked, DVD-5 disc that goes straight to a making-of documentary without a main menu screen. The Blu-ray on the other hand commences with a couple skippable trailer before switching to the usual main menu screen with full-motion clips and music playing in the background.
'Django Unchained' is set free and wreaks vengeance on Blu-ray with a stylized yet highly-detailed 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode.
There are several photographic styles at play here, but this high-def presentation remains true to the intentions of Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson. Many moments appear softer than others, which are very likely the result of focus manipulation and use of lens filters, and flashback sequences come with a monochromatic appeal. One such scene is even meant to look like a weathered, aging print of 70s exploitation cinema. Nevertheless, the majority of the transfer is crisp and very well-defined, revealing excellent, distinct lines in the costumes, surrounding foliage and the architecture of the antebellum American South. Facial complexions appear healthy with splendid lifelike textures during close-ups.
Presented in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, the image is also vibrant and energetic with a color palette that jumps off the screen with real panache. Primaries are sumptuous and richly-saturated, sprinkling the film with an ironic feel of spirited life but showering the frame with gobs of vivid blood reds. The softer pastel hues are equally dramatic and passionate, providing the picture with warmth. Contrast is pitch-perfect with clean, brilliant whites throughout, making visibility into the far distance superb and crystal-clear. Black levels tend to waver somewhat, depending on the scene because the cinematography sometimes relies on natural candlelight and the light source is highly-controlled. Still, the video doesn't lose any of its cinematic appeal and shadow details during these low-lit interiors remain strong.
Django unleashes his retribution vigorously with a DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that's magnificent, if only a bit more subtle than the video.
The majority of the design is kept up front where the soundstage feels broad and sweeping thanks to excellent separation and fluid movement between the channels. Imaging is expansive and enthusiastic with several discrete off-screen effects while dialogue remains precise and intelligible in the center of the screen. Dynamic range is highly extensive and rather superb, exhibiting brilliant details and differentiation within the orchestration. We can clearly hear each pluck of the guitar string and appreciate the individual brass instruments. Low bass doesn't pack the sort of wallop and punch we'd expect from the action and few explosions, but there is some decent impact in the gunshots and the music delivers the more robust aspects to the LFE channel.
Rear activity is in much the same boat, sprinkling the room with several amusing effects but never really generating a consistent soundscape. Atmospherics are employed throughout with excellent directionality, extending the soundfield and providing some appreciable ambience. Only, it's not all that convincing and can sometimes feel as if there simply to remind viewers they're listening in surround sound. The lossless mix's more substantial and enjoyable aspect comes from the front soundstage, and fans are sure to find it the most satisfying.
Tapping into a pre-established legacy within Exploitation Cinema, 'Django Unchained' continues an Italian western tradition where the titular character, played terrifically by Jamie Foxx, issues vengeance and justice in some very brutal ways. Also starring Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson, Quentin Tarantino's latest genre love-letter is a masterful display of style and hyperbole. The Blu-ray is available in a variety of packages, many of which are store exclusives, and arrives with an excellent audio and video presentation. Supplements are in short supply, which is a bit of a disappointment, but the overall package is recommended nonetheless.