Along with John Woo, Quentin Tarentino made violence chic. Sure there was graphic violence in film, just watch some Peckinpah. The difference is with Tarentino the scenes of violence are dovetailed with the humorous insider jokes, the one who understands that the song playing in the background signifies something and that the composition of the scene is from this movie, all of it more concerned with style. Which is not to say that re-imagining style creates new ways of looking at a genre or an aesthetic. However, with Tarentino style is the aesthetic and violence is the tool. A movie like Kill Bill is the perfect format for such re-imagining because it plays on already generic conventions of the samurai and cowboy. Each genre uses violence as primary element and re-imagining them slightly, but still squarely withing the genre at the same time making fun of the genre and celebrating it.
With Inglorious Bastards, though, Tarentino moves into the war movie genre. Again he attempts to rework a genre but this time his efforts are misplaced because instead of reworking the tropes of war films such as the green solder or the selfless soldier who jumps on the grenade, he injects the sadistic violence of Reservoir Dogs into World War II. Even within the work of Tarentino that kind of violence is not light hearted, but in Inglorious Bastards it is and it lends a certain approval of violence as fun. Granted the targets are Nazis and the perpetrators are Jewish, but even as Tarentino shows in Kill Bill, vengeance is complicated, filled with conflicting emotions. While Tarentino captures the cinematic sense of a group of soldiers, each with his own heterogeneous personality, any complexity he may have shown in Kill Bill is missing. Instead, the film is more like Dusk Till Dawn: pure shock for shock’s sake. In a zombie movie that doesn’t matter, but in a war film it isn’t enough.
Tarentino brings a righteous indignation to the war against Germany, something that is often missing unless the film focuses on the Holocaust. Yet the complexity of it is lost and instead of looking at the violence in its starkest terms, as one might in looking at the war against Japan with all its savagery, the Nazis are either brilliantly cruel or just willing fools and the American soldiers are more or less untouchable. The result is a film that places the savagery in the hands of the good—the Americans—and places all questions of methods outside review. Tarentino has created a very black and white view of the war, albeit graphic and witty, which has more in common with the Sands of Iwo Jima than Flags of Our Fathers or Letters from Iwo Jima, two films that show the savagery not as a game, but something troubling.
Ultimately, Inglorious Bastards, with its re-imagining of the end of World War II is pure Tarentino: style as substance. Inglorious Bastards is more concerned with the fun of vengeance than saying anything that we haven’t already seen in other war films.