Man and Knife: Pitt brings a comic edge to his role as Nazi hunter.

Somewhere between Jackie Brown and Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino became a parody of himself. Onscreen, the writer-director amped up his trademark buckets of dialogue and blood, particularly indulging his fetish for kung fu and babes who can kill as easily as they die. Offscreen, he often came across as tweaked-out and trashy, hardly credible as the genius behind the elegant Reservoir Dogs and epic Pulp Fiction.

But when a character delivers the final line in his latest, the World War II–era Inglourious Basterds—“This may be my masterpiece”—it feels as if Tarantino is giving the audience a wink and himself a pat on the back. Because you’ll likely realize that not once during its 150-plus minutes did you look at your watch. And that, though it’s not quite on par with the genre-busting Pulp Fiction, Tarantino’s seventh film is just as assuredly paced and remarkably more mature.

Inglourious Basterds is not a remake of Italy’s correctly spelled 1978 movie, but that film did serve as something of a launching point for the script Tarantino reportedly worked on for a decade. Divided into chapters, its first one—with the Sergio Leone–inspired title “Once Upon a Time…in Nazi-Occupied France”—is one of its most brilliant. Here we meet Col. Hans Landa (Austrian actor Christoph Waltz), an impeccably mannered and educated Nazi who visits a French dairy farmer (Denis Menochet). Landa politely and interminably makes small talk, eventually inquiring about Jewish families who were once known to live in the area and letting slip that he’s become known among his cohorts as the “Jew Hunter.” The farmer tries to sweat out the call; the camera smoothly pans through the floorboards to the refugees hiding beneath. Landa’s goodbye is not a pretty one.

Before the scene’s brutal end, the mood is subdued yet tense, a tone masterfully evoked repeatedly throughout the film—particularly whenever the award-worthy Waltz is onscreen. Other characters include the title group themselves, a rabble of rogue American soldiers led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) who make it their mission to kill Nazis; a young Jewish woman named Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent) who escaped the aforementioned dairy farm to start a new life as the owner of a French cinema; and a German movie star (Diane Kruger) who serves as a double-agent for the British and American military. All share an interest in the film’s big event: The premiere of Nation’s Pride, a movie about an especially efficient Nazi soldier whose screening will be attended by Hitler and his top aides.

The subject matter, even with its toyed history, feels rather grown-up for Tarantino. But though his usual tics are toned down—after spinning out of control in Death ProofInglourious Basterds still bears his stamp. You’ll see Nazi scalps—per Lt. Raine’s orders—get hatcheted off the soldiers’ heads, and shootouts are vicious and thorough. There’s a smattering of “Royale with Cheese”–esque banter, such as when Landa talks at length about the differences between hawks (the Germans) and rats (those would be Jews). More distinctive is the script’s humor: Pitt gets to deliver most of it, and though his mugging verges on excess, he’s hilarious whether attempting to speak Italian (“Ban journo!”) or asking a well-known Nazi killer to join his group: “We just wanted to say we’re a big fan of your work.” (Pay close attention, and you’ll also hear vocal cameos from Tarantino vets Samuel L. Jackson and Harvey Keitel.) It all adds up to a tremendously satisfying package that may not project youthful exuberance but still oozes talent.