Django Unchained is a perfectly entertaining action movie. The story—of a slave in pre–Civil War America who’s freed, becomes a bounty hunter, and attempts to rescue his wife from an unhinged Mississippi plantation owner—is rarely dull; hardly 15 minutes passes without a shot fired. Jamie Foxx, as Django, shows some restraint for once, playing the freeman as a stone-cold warrior out for revenge. (He’s cool without ever being too cool for the room.) And at times the movie is funny. Christoph Waltz, as the erudite German bounty hunter who frees Django and takes him under his wing, insults the ignorant slave traders he encounters with a smile so warm and vocabulary so rich that they never realize they’re being verbally shredded. Like I said: It’s a decent action flick.
But this is a Quentin Tarantino action flick, dammit, and as such it’s a disappointment. After the historical fantasy of Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, which used WWII as a backdrop for a story of oppressed people finding empowerment through revenge while envisioning a fiery end to the Third Reich, Django feels…small. Not literally, because at nearly two and a half hours long, the movie is crammed with so many sub-plots about Django’s former owners and underground slave fights and proto-Klansmen that Tarantino almost loses the narrative.
Yet for all of those overt references to the overwhelming racism of the time that make it seem like the director wants to make a statement about How We Lived Then, Django isn’t about the evils of slavery. It’s not even about an uprising. It’s about a dude who wants to save his wife. And even the madman he has to save her from—played with a gleeful wickedness by Leonardo DiCaprio—is a charismatic madman, a third-generation plantation owner who inherited his twisted ways and superiority complex. But in a strange—and, frankly, off-putting—twist, the real bad guy here is Stephen, the slimy “house Negro” played by Samuel L. Jackson who would rather sell out a fellow black man than rebel against the white man who’s kept him in bondage.
There’s nothing wrong with a bloody revenge movie or an exploitation flick, and viewed that way Django Unchained works fine. But why set it during an ugly period in American history, only to cheapen the effect by essentially pointing, laughing, and saying, “Remember when we were racists? Boy, we were dumb.”
Django Unchained is in theaters December 25.