Our most fetishistic filmmaker returns with "The Hateful Eight" -- a.k.a. "the eighth film by Quentin Tarantino" -- and those with a Quentin Tarantino fetish are likely to like the writer-director's latest tribute to '60s and '70s film and TV, as well as his own instantly recognizable stylings. But absent the central provocations of the blaxploitational "Django Unchained" and the history-rewriting (and cheerily misspelled) "Inglourious Basterds," Tarantino's new play date will teach some of his fans that they've at last outgrown him.
The director's pulp fictions amount to comic-book movies without the superheroes, or, in the case of "The Hateful Eight," without heroes. As the title promises, the post-Civil War potboiler has scoundrels -- eight, at least -- circling each other and, eventually, pouncing and bleeding. After some exterior shots of a snowy stagecoach, "The Hateful Eight" goes fetchingly stagy, in the vein of an Agatha Christie locked-room mystery or a claustrophobic horror movie.
A snappy ensemble runs with the self-serving survivalists-cum-suspects-cum-victims, all spewing with relish Tarantino's patented patois: bounty hunters Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and John Ruth (Kurt Russell), near-feral prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh, sadly squandered), Sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), hangman Oswaldo Mowbray (Tim Roth, doing his best Terry-Thomas), Mexican henchman Bob (Demián Bichir), brooding cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and not-so-innocent bystander General Sanford "Sandy" Smithers (a perfectly ratty Bruce Dern).
Though messy and bloated, "The Hateful Eight" has its selling points: the cast, having a ball putting on a show; Tarantino's knowingly overripe dialogue and unfolding-narrative trickery; and photography -- of epic Colorado scenery and the frontier squalor of makeshift way station Minnie's Haberdashery -- by three-time Oscar winner Robert Richardson ("JFK"). The filmmaker's fetishism here includes Western trappings, from the plot inspired by TV oaters to the mostly-new Ennio Morricone score, Ultra Panavision 70 film format, and Roadshow size and shape. Check your local listings to see if you're getting the 187-minute Roadshow presentation in 70-millimeter film projection -- with collectible program -- or the 167-minute digitally-projected version.
Tarantino's movie-nerd indulgences steep his films in a cinematic tradition while also reflecting something of a creative deficit. "Hateful Eight," more than any previous Tarantino outing, recycles the filmmaker's own work: the leaner if no meaner dog-eat-dog plotting of "Reservoir Dogs" -- itself a heady mix of the derivative and the fresh -- and a roster of no-longer-shocking offenses (the filmmaker continues to relish the "n-word," homosexual rape, and blood-spurting violence).
Even Tarantino's greatest provocations and most mischievous entertainments have been mostly shallow, and for all its amusements along the way, "Hateful Eight" noticeably flounders in patches of bald exposition and clunky narration. Also damaging is the general absence of something to say, beyond ye olde critique of self-serving human folly and the film's one truly arresting riff: Warren's self-congratulatory ode to selling b.s. with pathologically confident bluster. With this literally last-minute effort, Tarantino confirms that the musically braying Warren is both the character who comes closest to being a hero and the character who best resembles his creator.
Rated R for strong bloody violence, a scene of violent sexual content, language and some graphic nudity. Three hours, 7 minutes.