Only Quentin Tarantino would use Jim Croce in a shoot-em-up saga of slavery and bounty-hunting.
I confess I never really "got" Tarantino - until now. I still think his violence is excessive; but the writer-director's latest movie, "Django Unchained," is a terrifically entertaining piece of cinema.
Maybe too entertaining.
In this undated publicity file photo released by The Weinstein Company, from left, Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio star in the film, 'Django Unchained,' directed by Quentin Tarantino.
In this pre-Civil War tale of a freed slave (Jamie Foxx) and a bounty-hunter (Christoph Waltz) searching for the slave's wife, an awful lot of people get gunned down - in explosively bloody Tarantino fashion.
Granted, most of them seem to deserve it.
In fact, the toughest scene to watch - a brawl-to-the-death between two blacks - is best viewed as revealing the soulless depravity in a vicious Southerner (Leonardo DiCaprio) who subjects his slaves to such cockfight-style brutality.
It can feel pretty satisfying to watch people like this get bumped off. But one senses that Tarantino enjoys it too much - that he's having too much irresponsible fun with lots of bloody death.
You simply have to question such orgiastic violence at the end of year like the one we've had.
In addition, I suspect that lurking behind much of this bloodshed is a tacit assumption that if somebody's a racist, it's perfectly OK to shoot him in cold blood.
Again - not great from a public-safety angle.
All this having been said, the rousing "Django" may well become Tarantino's biggest hit.
It reminded me of the Coens' "True Grit" and Scorsese's "Shutter Island" - atypically old-fashioned films that became financial windfalls for their usually more cutting-edge directors.
"Django" is essentially a damsel-in-distress tale, beautifully acted all around, with special kudos to Foxx and DiCaprio. Waltz is also excellent, though I found his German accent a bit spotty (even though it's genuine).
Yet the movie's casting coup is Samuel L. Jackson as a vicious toady to DiCaprio's character.
Channeling all of Jackson's toughness into persecution of his own race seems counterintuitive - but it highlights the wickedness of an institution that so badly corrupts this strong-willed man.
Indeed, that sort of counterintuition is one of Tarantino's strengths, and it's on full display here: making Foxx a cool blaxploitation cat with sunglasses; playing Croce's "I Got a Name" against a manhunt pastiche; and using raucous rap tunes, along with John Legend and James Brown - not to mention the gorgeous spaghetti-western-flavored "Django" theme.
It's counterintuitive to cast Leo as the bad guy, to cast himself (Tarantino) as one dim-witted slaver and Don Johnson as another - and to stage an uproarious hissy-fit among Klan members over their crappy costumes just as they're about to perpetrate a lynching; this is one of the year's funniest scenes.
The 165-minute film has an near-epic, "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" feel - with stately pacing, effective ties to the legend of Siegfried and Brunnhilde, and snappy cinematography by Robert Richardson ("Hugo," "Kill Bill," "Platoon").
So, yeah - I get it; this Tarantino is an awful lot of fun. But I can't help wondering how much fun it should be to watch so many people get shot.
*** (out of four)
The film is rated R for language, brutal violence and some nudity.