(CNN) -- When the British comedian Spike Milligan wrote a memoir about his experiences during World War II, he called it "Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall."
Eli Roth and Brad Pitt play some bloodthirsty Allied soldiers in "Inglourious Basterds."
Unlike Milligan, Quentin Tarantino was born 40 years too late to have played an active role in that enterprise, but at least he shares Milligan's chutzpah. Beginning with the precaution "Once upon a time in Nazi-Occupied France ..." -- part homage to Sergio Leone, part disclaimer of historical authenticity -- "Inglourious Basterds" doesn't pretend to give us the war as it was, but as it should have been.
In this outrageous revisionist revenge fantasy, not only do the Jews resist Hitler -- in the form of a crack U.S. guerrilla unit operating behind enemy lines and outside official jurisdiction -- but they terrorize the German army with the bloodcurdling ferocity of their reprisals.
When Brad Pitt's drawling Lt. Aldo Raine tells his platoon of misfits and sociopaths that each owes him 100 German scalps, it's not an idle pleasantry.
Despite Pitt's sadism, this "Dirty Dozen" redux -- inspired by Enzo Castellari's 1978 exploitation film "The Inglorious Bastards" -- turns out to be the sketchiest component in an unexpectedly elaborate design dominated by Christoph Waltz's arch villain, Col. Hans Landa. Watch the stars talk about making the movie »
Waltz will be unknown to most American audiences -- he was certainly unknown to me -- but he's nothing less than sensational as the silky, polyglot SS officer charged by the Fuhrer to root out the remaining Jews in France.
The long, long first sequence -- or "chapter," as Tarantino terms it -- is essentially a 20-minute-plus two-character scene between Landa and a French farmer (played by Denis Menochet), where the SS man most graciously presumes on his host's wary hospitality, flattering him and his family, even complimenting his milk.
The man is a tease, but a deadly one. With every perfectly enunciated phrase, he turns the screws tighter and tighter, up to the point where the poor farmer is ready to tell him everything.
It's a masterful scene, bleakly comic and incredibly suspenseful, and as bold in its way as anything Tarantino has done before. (Who starts an adventure movie with 30 pages of dialogue?) Before it is done, we have developed a powerful antipathy to this brilliant, vicious fellow, Landa; it is clear that, like so many of the most memorable screen villains, he is a man we will love to hate.
Tarantino doesn't hold back on nasty Nazis -- Goebbels and Hitler also figure, as well as Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), a handsome young infantryman and movie buff who has become a national hero after shooting more than a hundred GIs, and who is now starring as himself in Goebbels' latest propaganda film.
On the other side of the equation, we find a glamorous German movie star who is actually an agent for the Allies (Diane Kruger as Bridget von Hammersmark) and Michael Fassbender as a British agent, Lt. Archie Hicox, sent as a liaison between Bridget and the "Basterds" because of his background as a film critic. (Only in a Tarantino movie do you find heroic critics.)
And then there's Shosanna Dreyfus (the excellent Melanie Laurent), improbably the owner-operator of a Parisian movie theater, the site on which all the major characters -- including der Fuhrer -- converge for Zoller's premiere.
In this film, the cinema is everywhere and everything. For two and a half hours in the dark, anything goes.
Some critics have taken exception to this hubris, even on moral grounds. Yet the movies have always exploited war and plundered history. Tarantino is just more up front about repurposing it than most.
That first scene is no anomaly. Words speak louder than action, and most of the brutality comes veiled in cagey cat-and-mouse conversation. It's so intricately constructed, sometimes, that the film threatens to turn into a screenwriting master class and you wish Tarantino would just get on with the plot.
But then, of course, he does, and engineers the kind of climax that threatens to bring the house down.
"Inglourious Basterds" may or may not get Tarantino's career (and its producers, The Weinstein Company) back on track. It's hard to see it converting many skeptics, but the filmmaker's fans should be more than satisfied, and curious newbies will discover a dense, literate, audacious and prodigious talent, still one of the best of his generation.
"Inglourious Basterds" is rated R and runs 152 minutes. For Entertainment Weekly's review, click here.
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