LOS ANGELES — If only Quentin Tarantino the director weren't so completely in love with Quentin Tarantino the writer, "Inglourious Basterds" might have been a great movie rather than just a good movie with moments of greatness.
Everything that's thrilling and maddening about his films co-exists and co-mingles here: the visual dexterity and the interminable dialogue, the homage to cinema and the self-glorifying drive to redefine it, the compelling bursts of energy and the numbingly draggy sections.
And then there is the violence, of course: violence as a source of humor, as sport, violence merely because it looks cool on camera, and because the 46-year-old Tarantino still has the sensibilities of a 12-year-old boy.
"Inglourious Basterds" also reflects the discipline, or lack thereof, of an adolescent — one who's never been told "no." Certain scenes of his wildly revisionist World War II saga have a wonderfully palpable tension, but then he undermines them by allowing them to go on too long. You expect talkiness in a Tarantino film, but rather than whisking you away in waves of poetry, as he did with the Oscar-winning "Pulp Fiction" screenplay he co-wrote, too often here his talk lacks snap.
As for the plot ... well, it might be in there somewhere among the many meandering threads. In one of them, "Inglourious Basterds" follows a band of Jewish American soldiers, led by twangy Tennessean Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), who hunt Nazis with the goal of not just killing them but scalping them and sometimes carving swastikas into their foreheads.
Pitt is a hoot, by the way, in the tradition of his best comic supporting work in films like "Snatch" and "Burn After Reading." He's pretty much doing a bad impression of George W. Bush — campy but irresistible — and it is always such a joy to watch him let go and goof off.
Among his "Dirty Dozen"-style crew are "Hostel" director Eli Roth as a Boston native who likes to take a baseball bat to the enemy's skull as if he were Ted Williams facing a fastball.
But Pitt isn't the star, despite being the biggest name and marketing focal point. "Inglourious Basterds" also intertwines the stories of Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent in a subtle and intense performance), a young Jewish woman who fled to Paris and opened a movie theater after Nazis killed her family; Hans Landa (a commanding Christoph Waltz), the cool but cruelly conniving Nazi colonel who orchestrated that attack; German movie star Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger, oozing old-school glamour), who's an undercover agent for the Brits; and Nazi war hero Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), who's about to become a star by playing himself in a propaganda flick about his exploits.
All these characters converge one night at Shosanna's theater, where their various ambitions and murder plots collide. The climax is a seriously over-the-top explosion — even for a Tarantino movie — of flames, gunfire and screaming, teeming masses. After respectfully ripping off other directors his whole life, perhaps this is intended as a parody of himself, but even he doesn't seem to know how to handle it.
While the path to that moment can be torturous, it can also be a visual wonder. "Inglourious Basterds" may be Tarantino's most artfully photographed film next to his "Kill Bill" movies (Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson shot them all), with spaghetti Western touches at the beginning eventually giving way to dramatic noir imagery by the end.
But for every inspiring moment or performance — Waltz especially stands out, in four different languages, no less — Tarantino frustrates in equal measure.
"Inglourious Basterds," a Weinstein Co. and Universal Pictures release, is rated R for strong graphic violence, language and brief sexuality. Running time: 152 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.