09/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Movie Review: Inglourious Basterds

No matter what you imagine Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is going to be, think again.

OK, yes, Tarantino's film is a World War II thriller with scenes of gruesome violence. But anyone who comes in expecting - or hoping - that the action defines the film will be wrong.

What Tarantino understands is that the key ingredient in a thriller - the thrill, if you will - is the suspense, not the payoff. Sure, in any work built on a tension/release model, the release feels good - but it's the tension that thrills you, that makes you squirm and feel totally alive to the moment.

That's why the saying goes, "The suspense is killing me." It's the anticipation that makes every nerve jangle, not the catharsis.

And that's what the cagey, canny Tarantino has done with Inglourious Basterds, his most accomplished, crazily entertaining film yet: He's created a series of scenes of unbearable, exquisite tension. He positively luxuriates in suspense - just before he hits the release and lets the screen explode with gunfire and other pyrotechnics.

It's as if the five acts into which this film is divided are each a big bomb with a long fuse. Early on in each act, he lights that fuse, then lets the audience simmer in the suspense he creates, even as they wonder how much longer before the burning fuse reaches the dynamite.

What stokes that suspense? Talk - lots of talk. Great gushing torrents of the kind of funny, complex dialogue for which Tarantino is so justly known.

Tarantino has written a series of highly recognizable tropes - sort of non-interrogation interrogation scenes, as it were - in which the good guys are cornered by the Nazis, who may or may not know who they are and what they're up to. Can the heroes play the hand they've been dealt and walk away? You can almost hear Tarantino's brain calculating just how long he can let this play out, what tense little twists and clever escapes he can incorporate into these conversations that will ratchet the pressure without forcing matters to a head.

The film - illiterate title spelling aside - has nothing to do with the dreadful 1978 exploitation film (with a correctly spelled version of the same title) that starred Bo Svenson and Fred Williamson, except in the broadest possible way: Americans fighting Nazis. Tarantino's inspirations seem to be more classic action-thrillers: The Dirty Dozen and The Guns of Navarone, to name a couple.

The plot, such as it is, focuses on two sets of heroes. One is the eponymous band of American soldiers - Jews except for their leader, played by Brad Pitt with a squirrelly backwoods accent. Their mission: to hunt down and scalp Nazis, in an effort to demoralize German forces in the period just before and after D-Day.

Eventually, their mission winds up on a parallel track with that of French Jew Shoshanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), who has escaped a Nazi slaughter of her family and now runs a Paris movie theater. She's strong-armed into letting her theater be used for the premiere of a Nazi propaganda feature, which will be attended by Hitler and the entire Nazi high command. So even as the Basterds focus on blowing up the same target, she has plans to burn down the theater with all of the Nazis inside.

But the plot is less important than the elaborate dialogue scenes that Tarantino constructs.

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