Christoph Waltz seems to know that God, the devil or just a delightful performance is in the details. And to never overdo it.
As a German dentist turned American bounty hunter in "Django Unchained," opening in theaters today, he periodically tugs on his vest and runs his thumb and index finger over the corners of his generous mustache.
It's a motion that seems born of habit, vanity and slight nerves, and it helps him to create another distinctive character for Quentin Tarantino, the writer-director who guided Mr. Waltz to an Oscar for "Inglourious Basterds."
3 stars = Good
Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio.
R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity.
This time around, he's joined by a gleefully villainous Leonardo DiCaprio and leading actor Jamie Foxx as a slave in the pre-Civil War South who embarks on a journey for freedom, his beloved wife and Western-style justice.
Yes, that means bullets, lots of bullets, and blood that gushes, splashes and sprays in a way moviegoers will find stylized, Tarantino-esque or stomach-turning.
Audiences also should be cautioned that the n-word is uttered early and often -- roughly 110 times by several counts, or enough to make some viewers of all colors cringe. As with the f-word, sometimes a single crisp delivery is most shocking; use the epithet this often and it loses its power and offense.
The movie, which opens in 1858 Texas before the Civil War, is an homage to spaghetti Westerns but with improbable buddies, a married couple separated by the savagery of slavery and a plantation payback scheme.
Django (Mr. Foxx) is part of a chain gang, and the scars crisscrossing his back and the shackles binding him to other enslaved Africans provide a shorthand for his history.
A bounty hunter and onetime dentist, Dr. King Schultz (Mr. Waltz) is interested in Django as the way to identify brutal brothers with a price on their heads. "Like slavery, it's a flesh for cash business," the stranger says.
"You kill people and they give you a reward?" Django confirms as he's enlisted in the hunt, in return for the promise of his freedom and some cash.
In the early going, the scheme calls for Django to masquerade as the German's valet -- complete with a Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit that generates automatic laughs -- although their ruses change as they encounter all manner of dangers, from the KKK to Calvin Candie (Mr. DiCaprio).
He's the wealthy owner of a plantation called Candyland and a man who gets his thrills out of watching "Mandingo fighters" battle each other to the death or despair and exhaustion. Candie's encounters with the bounty hunters leads to apocalyptic showdowns.
"Django Unchained" takes its name from the 1966 Western starring Franco Nero as a lone gunslinger dragging a coffin, and scores of other movies appropriating the name Django -- or, as Mr. Tarantino has labeled them, "non-related ripoff sequels." He's proud to include his own in the mix, although he gives Mr. Nero a cameo.
In fact, he gives lots of people cameos, including himself, Jonah Hill (improbably, as Bag Head No. 2, a KKK member), Bruce Dern, Russ Tamblyn, Amber Tamblyn, and Pittsburgher and special effects makeup guru Tom Savini.
He also gives choice roles to Samuel L. Jackson, especially, and Kerry Washington and Don Johnson. Mr. Jackson, buried under old-man makeup but his eyes still blazing bright, plays Stephen, an elderly slave who has cared for Candie since birth and functions as majordomo, unofficial father figure and a man who's not free but not treated like the average slave, either.
"Django Unchained" allows Mr. Foxx to cowboy up, literally, as he rides his personal horse and pulls guns out of their hip-hugging holsters and twirls them like a rodeo star. Some of the air goes out of the picture whenever Mr. Waltz and/or Mr. DiCaprio aren't on screen with him.
And there's a lot of picture to watch -- 165 minutes' worth, which is far too long.
That's even taking into account the darkly humorous moments, one involving Klansmen hoods that seems like an inappropriate TV sketch, and harrowing scenes in which a man is hung upside down like a slaughtered animal and told he's about to have his genitals hacked off.
"Django Unchained" might be best when the two bounty hunters ride into the snowy hills, in a scene that echoes countless Westerns. It feels familiar and nostalgic the way the remake of "True Grit" did, and best of all, no one is being shot in the kneecap or ripped apart by dogs or blown to smithereens.