Quentin Tarantino loves action movies in all their forms: ritualistic Hong Kong martial-arts epics, '70s car-chase odysseys, terse and meditative Japanese gangster flicks. He hires the stars of those old movies, and he peppers his own films with references in just about every way he can manage. But he's not an action director.
He could be, though, if he wanted to be. He's great at it. The only straight-up action movie Tarantino's ever made is the first volume of Kill Bill, and that's an all-timer, bloody and simplistic and weirdly lyrical. He can write badass one-liners like no other screenwriter currently working, and the car-chase stuff in Death Proof can hang with the old B-movies that clearly inspired it. But at least in his own work, he's not that interested in action—at least not in the way that, say, John Woo or John Frankenheimer are. He's interested in dialogue, in high-stakes verbal games where people scramble for position and advantage before the guns come out, at which point the violence tends to be quick and decisive.
Django Unchained, Tarantino's last movie, doesn't become an action movie until more than two hours in. Before then, the 2012 argument-starter is a lot of other things: a revisionist Western, a character study, a bleak comedy, a teeth-grinding look at the greatest evil in American history. It's great at being all those different things. The fanciful dialogue might be Tarantino's funniest. His characters, even his most evil ones, flex serious charm. He stages his longest-ever building-up-to-violence scenes—especially a dinner party that takes forever and serves as the movie's centerpiece—and absolutely pays off the tension he's built up.
The first big gunfight in Django Unchained—the one that erupts just after that dinner-party scene reaches its climax—is the first sustained gunfight that Tarantino has ever filmed. Sure, he's filmed tons of shootings and massacres and gun-based confrontations. But until that scene, he'd never blocked out a classic Hollywood gunfight, with one dude taking on a whole horde of assailants, hiding behind doorways before coming out with two guns blasting. In that scene, the violence doesn't end in one quick, shocking second. It goes on and on and on. He even turns it into a joke: One bad guy, injured and lying on the no-man's-land floor, keeps getting hit by shooters on his own side and cussing those shooters out.
That one scene is probably the best gunfight I've seen in the past five years of action movies. I don't even know what the competition would be. The Raid has better fight scenes that involve guns, but they aren't really gunfight scenes. John Wick has some lovely ones, but part of the beauty is that Keanu Reeves will catch someone in a rolling armbar and then shoot him.
But that Django scene is just people blasting at each other until the smoke clears and a whole lot of them are dead. It's Tarantino's take on Woo and, at the same time, his take on Sam Peckinpah. He uses slow motion and explosive blood-squibs and everything else a good gunfight should use; the scene's one major misstep is the song that soundtracks part of it: a Tupac remix that, for no good reason, incorporates dialogue clips from earlier in the movie. It's a rare moment where Tarantino's musical sensibility fails him. But even that works out OK, if only because it's likely to leave "YUP YUP TILL I DIE" rattling around in your head for the rest of the day.
In that scene, Jamie Foxx turns into the antebellum equivalent to Arnold Schwarzenegger in True Lies: He's an unkillable superman, a gunfighter with otherworldly skills and an ability to talk himself out of any situation where he doesn't have access to a gun. For its last half-hour, Django Unchained is a straight-up action fantasy; it leaves behind any pretentions to veracity. It's just pure, bloody revenge fantasy. And because of the pure and unvarnished evil of its villains, and because Tarantino has spent the previous two hours building up to it, it's a deeply satisfying vengeance-based killing spree. He doesn't try to keep you from feeling sorry for the dead bad guys. He makes you feel like an asshole for feeling sorry for those guys.
Tarantino originally had Will Smith in mind when he wrote Django, and thank god Smith turned it down: For all his smooth magnetism, he wouldn't have been able to play Django. I can't imagine he'd ever be able to project the quiet, assured, bloodthirsty panache that the role requires. Christoph Waltz won a Supporting Actor Oscar for his Django role, and he probably deserved it, for the way he used all his slimy and terrifying Inglourious Basterds charm and flipped it around until it looked heroic. But Foxx gave a truly great and unheralded leading-man performance, holding the movie's excesses together with his cold-blooded elegance. When it comes time to jump out with two guns blasting, Foxx is up to the challenge. And by the time he's making his horse dance in front of a smoldering explosion, he looks like the baddest man in the universe. Someone, please, build a Bourne-style franchise around this guy. With Django, he earned it.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he's written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice,GQ,Grantland, and The Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn't have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying "fuck it" and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we'll highlight a new one.
Previous installments: El Mariachi | Tombstone | Fearless | Red Dawn | Blue Ruin | The Man From Nowhere | Face/Off | The Chinese Connection | Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning | District B13 |Uncommon Valor |The Heroic Trio | Safe | Mad Max | Ip Man | Big Trouble in Little China|Sonatine | Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol | Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior | Charley Varrick | Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky | Dredd | 13 Assassins | Death Wish 3 | The Legend of Drunken Master