Although Quentin Tarantino has cherished Enzo G. Castellari's 1978 "macaroni" war flick The Inglorious Bastards for most of his film-geek life, his own Inglourious Basterds is no remake. Instead, as hinted by the Tarantino-esque misspelling, this is a lunatic fantasia of WWII, a brazen re-imagining of both history and the behind-enemy-lines war film subgenre. There's a Dirty Not-Quite-Dozen of mostly Jewish commandos, led by a Tennessee good ol' boy named Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) who reckons each warrior owes him one hundred Nazi scalps--and he means that literally. Even as Raine's band strikes terror into the Nazi occupiers of France, a diabolically smart and self-assured German officer named Landa (Christoph Waltz) is busy validating his own legend as "The Jew Hunter." Along the way, he wipes out the rural family of a grave young girl (Melanie Laurent) who will reappear years later in Paris, dreaming of vengeance on an epic scale.
Now, this isn't one more big-screen comic book. As the masterly opening sequence reaffirms, Tarantino is a true filmmaker, with a deep respect for the integrity of screen space and the tension that can accumulate in contemplating two men seated at a table having a polite conversation. IB reunites QT with cinematographer Robert Richardson (who shot Kill Bill), and the colors and textures they serve up can be riveting, from the eerie red-hot glow of a tabletop in Adolf Hitler's den, to the creamy swirl of a Parisian pastry in which Landa parks his cigarette. The action has been divided, Pulp Fiction-like, into five chapters, each featuring at least one spellbinding set-piece. It's testimony to the integrity we mentioned that Tarantino can lock in the ferocious suspense of a scene for minutes on end, then explode the situation almost faster than the eye and ear can register, and then take the rest of the sequence to a new, wholly unanticipated level within seconds.
Again, be warned: This is not your "Greatest Generation," Saving Private Ryan WWII. The sadism of Raine and his boys can be as unsavory as the Nazi variety; Tarantino's latest cinematic protégé, Eli (director of Hostel) Roth, is aptly cast as a self-styled "golem" fond of pulping Nazis with a baseball bat. But get past that, and the sometimes disconcerting shifts to another location and another set of characters, and the movie should gather you up like a growing floodtide. Tarantino told the Cannes Film Festival audience that he wanted to show "Adolf Hitler defeated by cinema." Cinema wins. --Richard T. Jameson