In "Django Unchained," which has its moments of devilish glee in and among dubious wallows in numbing slaughter, writer-director-trash compactor Quentin Tarantino delivers a mashup of several hundred of his favorite movies, all hanging, like barnacles, onto a story of a freed slave (Jamie Foxx) and his bounty-hunter savior (Christoph Waltz) out to rescue Django's wife (Kerry Washington) from a venal plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). The plantation's "house slave" (Samuel L. Jackson) has no divided loyalties in the eventual standoff.
Tarantino's loyalties? They lie wholly with his cinematic inspirations, including the Italian-made Westerns (mashups in themselves) made by Sergio Corbucci, beginning with "Django" (1966) starring Franco Nero. Nero pops up for a cameo here. So does Russ Tamblyn. So does Tarantino, looking and acting like a cross between Walter Brennan and Vic Morrow.
The movie interpolates the usual quotient of Ennio Morricone spaghetti Western music. (If Tarantino ever remakes "Breakfast at Tiffany's," he'll still find a way to use a theme from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.") The filmmaker references, among others, "Mandingo," which came a decade later and which turns up as a riff in "Django Unchained" when two of the DiCaprio character's slaves go at it, to the death, "Mandingo wrestling" style.
How much you enjoy the most vicious acts of violence will relate directly to your response to the vengeance fantasies in "Inglourious Basterds," Tarantino's previous film, a popular, nutty rewrite of World War II. By the time the filmmaker's latest arrives at its astoundingly bloody finale, Foxx's Django has become a proto-Shaft, a Trouble Man for troubled times. He's crossed 110th Street and gone all the way to a storybook version of the pre-Civil War-era South, where justice and bodies must be served.
By the two-hour mark the fun had oozed out of the movie for me. It's long. Or feels it. Tarantino's scripts tend to read, and play, like writing samples stitched together, full of heavily brocaded monologues for his most voluble characters. Yet he's a lousy self-editor, and despite his prodigious filmmaking knowledge and lust for filmmaking history, as a director he struggles with pacing and excess and detours. Slow buildup; sudden, blasting brutality; a few jokes (Jonah Hill turns up in an ur-Ku Klux Klan sight gag). And then some dead air. His best work so far — "Pulp Fiction" and "Death Proof" and, more subtly, "Jackie Brown" — speaks for itself, on its own terms. I'm more conflicted about the mixture of jocularity and sadism in "Basterds" and "Django Unchained."
There's a moment offering a glimpse of something stronger. It's a flashback to a scene in which a man is torn apart by rabid dogs, delivered visually as troubling shards of a painful memory. This is not a moment existing for kicks. It's better, more complicated than that. I wish more of "Django Unchained" came from the adult Tarantino, rather than the eternal, talented but blinkered adolescent. He may well know his audience. But does he know himself?