Quentin Tarantino is having what Martin Amis readers might call a "Yellow Dog" moment - something which happens when, following a worrying, mid-to-late period of creative uncertainty, a once dazzlingly exciting artist suddenly and catastrophically belly-flops, to the dismay of his admirers.
His new film is a cod-second world war adventure about a Jewish-American revenge squad sent into occupied France to spread terror among Nazis. Brad Pitt plays their leader, Lt Aldo Raine, and Eli Roth, the director of Hostel, is his ferocious second-in-command Sgt Donny Donowitz; Diane Kruger plays a German movie star called Bridget Von Hammersmark who has secret quasi-Dietrich sympathies with the Allies, and Michael Fassbender plays Lt Archie Hicox, a cucumber-cool British commando who in civvy street was, of all things, a film critic. Mélanie Laurent plays Shosanna Dreyfus, a beautiful young Jewish woman who has had to change what in France is a resonant surname; she owns the Parisian cinema at which the Nazi top brass, including the Führer himself, will assemble for one of Goebbels's propaganda movies. Here is where the Basterds hope to make their hit: but opposing them is the chilling SS Colonel Hans Landa, nicely played by Tarantino's personal casting discovery Christoph Waltz, who won the best actor award at Cannes for this performance.
It is notionally inspired by a 1970s B-movie called Quel Maledetto Treno Blindato, otherwise The Damned Armoured Train, renamed Inglorious Bastards for its American release: a war picture in the Dirty Dozen style by Italian director Enzo Castellari. But Tarantino's debt is much more obviously to Sergio Leone, weirdly mulched in with Mel Brooks. Having seen it once in Cannes earlier this year, and again for its UK release I was struck afresh by how exasperatingly awful and transcendentally disappointing it is: a colossal, complacent, long-winded dud, a gigantic two-and-a-half-hour anti-climax, like a Quentin Tarantino film in form and mannerism but with the crucial element of genius mysteriously amputated. Over-stretched scene follows over-stretched scene in plonkingly conventional narrative order and each is stuffed with dull dialogue which made it feel like Mogadon was somehow being pumped into the cinema's air-conditioning. The cut is now marginally different from that which premiered in Cannes, slightly longer in fact, and there appears to be a new introduction to the unendurably, unbelievably tedious scene set in a beer cellar where the actors play a guessing-game with playing cards.
There's no doubt that the 52-year-old Waltz - an Austrian-born actor who had been plying his trade on TV until Tarantino plucked him from the ranks - is a real find, and Mélanie Laurent also deserves this leg-up to stardom. But they can't make any real difference, and Brad Pitt gives the most wooden and charmless performance of his life; he acts and speaks as if the lower half of his face is set in concrete. Now, it is misleading to complain about boredom, when we all know how Tarantino can alchemise this into something special. In Pulp Fiction two hitmen famously put the exciting business of murder on hold while they discussed dull things like what Europeans call a quarter-pounder.
But there the ostensible banality was sexy, funny and above all intentional, and the director could in any case turn the action on a sixpence into something thrilling or horrifying whenever and wherever he felt like it. He exemplified Don DeLillo's maxim about America being "the only country in the world with funny violence". But here the boringness is just boring, and the violence doesn't get gasps of shock, just winces of bafflement and distaste - and boredom. Tarantino just seems to have lost his cool, lost his mojo.
When I saw Inglourious Basterds at Cannes, my traumatised complaint was that it fails as conventional war movie, as genre spoof, as trash and as pulp. Since then, its defenders have claimed that the point of the film is that it is "kosher porn": an over-the-top revenge fantasy for Jews. Well, erm, maybe. But it might simply have the highly un-porny effect of reminding us what actually happened. And if "kosher porn" was the point, wouldn't it have been better to make the Basterds' leader actually Jewish? Instead of which, their CO is Brad Pitt, the good ol' boy from Tennessee, a part of the world in which progressive sympathies with European Jewry are - how can I put it? - atypical. Even this, moreover, isn't exactly the point. Wildly bad-taste ahistorical fantasies about Nazi Germany are great: but here they are nullified by middlebrow good-taste cinephile stuff referencing UFA, Emil Jannings etc, in which the details of course have to be exactly right.
Tarantino's genius always lay, for me, in his audacious and provocative adventures in style, making generic textures bubble and react. His great riffs were sublime, similar to what Godard saw in Nicholas Ray: pure cinema. What happens when these surfaces fail to fizz? You get what you have here: great heavy lumps of nothing. I have always deprecated the growing and rather supercilious critical consensus that the Master's best film is Jackie Brown - a good film, yes, but uncharacteristic, and without the brash inspiration of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction or the late-flowering delirium of Kill Bill. Yet maybe this is the sort of thing that Tarantino should now work on: solid adaptations to steady and re-settle his greatness. That could be a way to put his mojo-loss into remission and return to the glory days.