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Battlin' -- and Battin' -- 'Basterds'

August 20, 2009 By:
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What you lookin' at? Eli Roth (left) and Brad Pitt carve out an answer. Photo by Francois Duhamel/TWC 2009

It's go-get-dem-Nazis and beat-'em-to-a-pulp fiction.

Because what Quentin Tarantino turns in as part of "Inglourious Basterds" is the Larry David definition of survivor, as a team of American Jews outwit, outlast and outplay the Nazis at their own game in the apparently logical second sequel to "Kill Bill": "Kill Wilhelm."

Fuhrer tales can come true; they can happen to Jews. And they certainly do here in a movie that begins, "Once upon a time ... ": Brad Pitt leads an all-Jews, all-the-time fantasy outfit of rogue Nazi hunters during World War II that would have done the late Simon Wiesenthal proud-- if Wiesenthal had been into bashing brains rather than using them -- as they corner Nazis amid the croissants of collaborative France and their Vichy swine.

So, tough Jews do ... daven?

"Yes, they do -- and they win! Finally!" exclaims Lawrence Bender.

The film is on a Bender; he's its producer and long-time Tarantino teammate, producing nearly all of Quentin's quil-filled fulminations with a reservoir of anti-dogma.

"He trusts me; I trust him."

It's a trust fund of hits -- of the box office and filmdom contract-killing kinds. And for this Jewishly involved member of the Israel Policy Forum and an AIPAC activist formerly of Cherry Hill, N.J., the cherry on top is when bad things happen to bad "Basterds."

"Quentin said I was the first Jewish person to read the script, and he wanted to know what I thought. I said, 'Thank you as a fan, a producing partner -- and as a member of the tribe."

Cue the Fiddler: It's like dancing the hora on the Nazis' graves.

"A Jewish kid's dream," quips Bender.

Nightmares? Swagger and swastikas were commonplace in Berlin, as "we were surrounded by all these actors dressed as Nazis. It was a bizarre feeling," he reports.

And when casting called for the Fuhrer to be front and center, you could seig the tension: "Quentin would call the actors by their characters' names so when he called Martin Wuttke, [Hitler], it was 'Mein Fuhrer.' "

The sound and the fury of a great career: A veteran producer, Bender is still very much green -- in an eco, not experiential, aspect. He produced and reportedly came up with the idea of turning Al Gore's lectures on global warming into the hottest documentary of three years ago.

"I knew I had to make this into a movie," he recalls of Gore's slide show, which slid into the annals as Oscar winner.

As for "Inglourious," Bender looks ahead and sees a possible prequel, "depending on how well this does, of course."

Tarantino's tarantula of a dance of black-and-blue humor, parody, suspense and plain pain is a step he has choreographed before, but will these vainglorious "Inglourious Basterds" -- "e" after "t" except before now; there was an infamous "The Inglorious Bastards" in 1978, although there's no similarity to this one, which opens on Aug. 21 -- provide a hypodermic to the heart for hard-core Tarantino acolytes?

Think of it all as a spaghetti Western with a side twist of strudel: "The Good, the Bad, the Ugly -- and the Horrific."

As for the dual-dueling plots of the nefarious Nazis, who take a licking and still keep ticking (not): The Basterds are only part of the drama that drags in a young French cinema owner, (Melanie Lauren) -- hiding a Jewish heart from her previous life as Shosanna Dreyfus -- whose theater is grist for a grindhouse group photo when chosen to premiere the latest Nazi propaganda. Alas, the film's war hero of a star (Daniel Bruhl) can handle a rifle, but can't trigger her heartstrings.

Ultimately, she scripts her own glorious plot; with the Nazi hierarchy, including the Fuhrer, assembled inside the theater for the premiere -- tough crowd, tough crowd -- she schemes to have them running for the aisles. Can she pull it off without it all blowing up in her face?

There Will Be Blood ...

As for Tarantino's bashings, grist for the gruesome? There will be blood -- a modified Juan Marichal moment in which a Basterd uses a baseball bat to bash the sense out of some Nazis: Three Reichs and you're out.

Surprisingly, "Basterds" is not as much a soaker as Tarantino's past soaps. Sure, there is the scalp solution that earns Pitt's Aldo Raine the appellation of the "Apache."

And the give-'em-heil helter-skelter remedy for eternally identifying Nazis as ... Nazis ... one that would have Charles Manson slapping his forehead with an "I could have had a 'V' sign instead" lament.

As for the nefarious Nazis, landing Christoph Waltz as Col. Landa lends a touch of corrosive comedy to any overkill. The Nazi's twisted ties to Shosanna showcase Tarantino as the fun terror he can be. And Waltz steps into his part perfectly; Landa is nasty, noxious -- the type who would incur Jackie Mason's wrath as a "Nazi basterd."

As for the propaganda film-within-a-film premiere at the end of "Inglourious Basterds," well, if it proves anything, it's what real harm can come from yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater.

But then, there's nothing that Tarantino takes on that's not flammable. How about the ultimate hot spot -- one so familiar to the producer's perspective? The Mideast on the Q.T.: Would it be "Yussele Brown" or "Sinai Slaughterhouse"?

Bender laughs. "Maybe," he muses, "a combination."

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