Roughly two-thirds of the way through Django Unchained my mind started to wander. I checked my watch for the first time during a Quentin Tarantino movie. Django, great in parts, is hobbled by its inexcusable length and lack of variety. It is the director’s first feature presented in completely linear order (save a couple flashbacks) and without meta-gimmicks — no chapter inter-titles, few if any ironic music cues. A couple cameos here and there, none against type. At first I was glad to see he'd gotten past such stylistic tics, but after an hour and a half — with another hour to go — they were sorely missed.

Tarantino has never been much of a storyteller, but he is great at setting his characters on singularly demanding missions. Django has a doozy. The title character (Jamie Foxx) is a slave in the pre-Civil War American South, forcibly separated from his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). The German dentist-turned-bounty-hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) knows Django can identify three wanted men, and promises freedom should he be of assistance. Once that freedom is assured, the men will search every plantation they can for the woman and punish anyone in the way.

Eventually, they find themselves at Candyland, a faux-French plantation overseen by the ruthless, soulless Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Even by Tarantino standards, Candie is one mean son of a bitch. He pits muscular slaves against each other in mortal combat, conducted not in any makeshift arena but by the fireplace in his posh parlor. Among other abominations, he casually orders a man to be ripped apart by dogs. Posing as traders — Django pulls this off by insulting and demeaning the slaves in Candie’s possession — our two heroes begin a long process of earning Candie’s trust so they may relieve him of Broomhilda.

These three characters are surrounded by many others, who are less interesting, except Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s elderly house slave who has grown accustomed to polite servitude and weary of outsiders. Stephen’s self-hating, Uncle Tom attitude is potentially offensive but Jackson’s doddering, hilarious performance makes it work.

There’s a lot of action in Django Unchained, but hardly enough plot to fill 163 minutes. After countless extended gun battles, I wondered what purpose they were serving. Violence is the fuel of Tarantino movies but the subversive sadism of Reservoir Dogs and wild imagination of Kill Bill have been replaced with blood-soaked monotony, a world in which characters are introduced only to be mowed down, like a chess player sweeping his pieces off the board in frustration. There is a moment of genuine humanity, when one character’s objection to the callousness of another seals their fate, but it does not reverberate through the rest of the story so much as it sets up one of those truly Tarantino-esque mano-a-mano showdowns.

I liked Django Unchained but hardly loved it. DiCaprio’s part, while it is a rather obvious variation on Waltz’s Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds, is played with bravery and gusto. Foxx and Waltz make a terrific team. I just wish their adventure had been scaled back.

Should Tarantino be expected to deliver a masterpiece every few years? Of course not. Were it made by anyone without his track record, would I admire the scope of Django Unchained more than I regret its bloat? Probably.

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Alliance, 163 minutes

Rating: 3.5/5

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