Well, folks, it’s a new millennium and Quentin Tarantino’s got a new movie for us. After changing the popular film landscape in the 1990s with Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and, to a much lesser extent, Jackie Brown, Tarantino spent half a decade in hibernation, accompanied by little more than a television set, a movie projector and a bong. But now he’s back with Kill Bill, a bloated, primitive and self-indulgent two-part, three-hour homage to his ill-spent youth.
But first, the good news.
Tarantino is incapable of making a dull film, and Kill Bill contains many of the elements that have made his earlier films so entertaining. There’s the wicked wit, the flawless timing, the funky score and the hip retro cultural artifacts. Once again, he’s divided the action into chapters, with voiceover narration to boot. He’s even got a new trick in which part of the story is told with Japanese anime. There’s also his trademark fractured narrative, although it seems a bit pro forma this time. (It also leads to a glaring continuity problem when Uma Thurman is shown in California driving the very conspicuous pickup truck of a man she’d killed in Texas at least a month earlier, after she’d taken care of some business in Asia in the interim. But nevermind.)
And Tarantino continues to be a gifted storyteller: This film ends with a bombshell of the sort that 19th century playwrights used to drop at the curtain before intermission.
Most crucially to the success of his films, Tarantino’s actors always shine and this film is no different. He’s generous to a fault with his actors’ screen time, and here Uma Thurman carries the film with the assurance of the golden diva that she is. The film rises and falls with our interest in her, and Thurman pulls it off beautifully, despite the fact that we know very little about her character–indeed, she’s doesn’t even have a name. She’s a professional assassin, attached to a criminal group of bodacious, martial arts-trained killers (the others are played by Vivica Fox, Daryl Hannah and Lucy Liu) who are led by the eponymous, shadowy Bill (unseen in this volume, but to be played by David Carradine). Among that crew she was called Black Mamba, but otherwise she’s simply known as The Bride because she was betrayed by her comrades on her wedding day, when they gunned her down and left her and her near-term child for dead.
The film gets off to an adroit start with a haunting Nancy Sinatra number over the opening credits, and we meet The Bride, newly recovered from her injuries and out for revenge. The film is composed of a series of long set pieces–the expository transitions between them are minimal. The set-up couldn’t be more basic: After waking up from a four-year coma, during which time a hospital orderly regularly pimped out her unresponsive body, The Bride regains the use of her legs (in one of the film’s best sequences) and proceeds to compile the Mother of All Shit Lists. This list has five names, and by the end of Vol. 1, The Bride will have eliminated two of them, along with dozens and dozens of henchmen and henchwomen. Numerous limbs will have been hacked, and severed arteries will have spewed enough blood to supply an average-sized hospital for a month.
My feelings about Tarantino and his influence have always been ambivalent. As undeniably entertaining as his work often is, his films–riddled as they are by bullets and arcane references to junk culture–generally leave me feeling dispirited, not stimulated. It’s as if society has nothing to offer but Jerry Springer and television reruns, and the work of Quentin Tarantino is the only possible aesthetic response to it. Furthermore, while some filmmakers make films that inspire others to make good films, Tarantino’s success has, virtually without exception, inspired others to make terrible films. There’s no moral center to Tarantino’s work, and no animating outlook. To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, in the dark night of Tarantino’s soul, it’s three o’clock in the morning and the television is always on.
In Kill Bill, Tarantino is paying homage to the schlock cinema of his youth in the 1970s, in particular the kung fu movies of the Shaw Brothers, which often featured Bruce Lee (another genre from that era, blaxploitation, figured heavily in Jackie Brown). Kill Bill is chockablock with references to bygone movies like Master of the Flying Guillotine and television shows like Hattori Hanzo. Every scene seems to carry its own footnotes and at least one is pretty baffling if you’ve no idea who Sonny Chiba is. And, in the final act of the film, Uma Thurman wears a yellow track suit that is exactly like the one Bruce Lee wore in his last film. (I am indebted to the film’s press kit for this paragraph.) There’s nothing wrong with sharing your enthusiasms, but those who have little interest in old karate movies–that were never intended to be anything more than cheap entertainments–may grow weary of this film’s self-indulgence.
So that he might make a credible martial arts flick, Tarantino employed the services of Yuen Wo-ping, the acknowledged master of fight choreography whose credits range from Drunken Master to The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But, if the press notes are to be believed, many of the karate moves originated with Tarantino himself. This might explain why so much of the fighting is so forgettable, particularly in that ballyhooed 20-minute finale where Thurman squares off against Liu in the House of Blue Leaves. Much of the fighting in Kill Bill is just slash, gash and gore–there’s little of the joyous, thrilling levitating that made Crouching Tiger (or any number of relatively obscure Hong Kong flicks like Peking Opera Blues) such a pleasure to watch.
I t would be easy enough to simply dismiss Tarantino’s film as a harmless fanboy tribute to Chinese and Japanese martial arts pictures, but the film’s graphic mayhem raises some tricky issues. The extraordinary violence of Japanese popular culture has been long noted and it’s often subsequently argued that, given the purported tranquility of actual life in Japan, the connection between violence in popular culture and in real life is vastly overstated. However, I would suggest that the placid and well-behaved Japanese, who waged a terrible war in the middle of the last century and were subsequently vanquished in humiliating and horrific fashion, have every right to indulge their otherwise repressed id in the field of make-believe entertainment. It’s a different story, however, when the entertainment is produced by and for the citizens of a country with an aggressive foreign policy and a military that is capable of wiping any faraway nation off the face of the earth.
Tarantino would be the first to admit that there’s no more nuance in Kill Bill than in a Charles Bronson film, and he has said that his film is intended as a Movie-Movie (in other words, “Don’t take this too seriously, because it’s only a movie”) but his desire to make an empty-headed, yet thrilling flick leads to some shocking callousness. Early on, a fight between The Bride and Vivica Fox’s Copperhead is briefly interrupted by the latter’s young daughter. There’s some vintage Tarantinian hilarity as the two bloodied women make nice for the girl’s sake, insisting that they’re only chatting. But later, after Copperhead is dispatched (in a probably unintentional affirmation of the old complaint about black characters dying first), a suddenly motherless little girl is left alone in the house with a dead body as The Bride moves on to the next name on her shit list. (Of course, there’s a distinct possibility that we haven’t seen the last of this girl; we’ll find out when Vol. 2 comes out in February.)
I don’t think I’m a priss about violence. I’ve enjoyed my fair share of bloody movies, ranging from the gleeful acrobatics of Hong Kong shoot-em-ups to the sanguineous psychodramas of Scorsese to the excruciating torture-chamber pieces of Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher, Funny Games). But, it was in Funny Games that Haneke made the banal but all too useful point that violence should not be consumable. Of course, we do consume it. It’s been an inescapable part of human existence and culture as far back as the day Oedipus gouged out his eyes on some Athenian stage. But violence should either look like it hurts or be utilized in a fashion that doesn’t take pleasure in the suffering. The emphasis in the Asian action flicks is usually on the process of killing, the creativity of the choreography, not on the outcome. With Kill Bill, Tarantino lingers–with far too much relish for my taste–over the gruesome fates he’s cooked up for his villains: An Achilles tendon gets slashed, a head gets crushed by a door, a head gets decapitated, a head gets partially decapitated.
At a time when there’s so much violence on the planet, a movie that’s designed to make the audience whoop and holler at every impaling, slashing and decapitation seems more than just a little immoral. Although I can already hear Tarantino screeching in my ear, “It’s a #$@#%*’ movie, you *&$%#*@#&%,” I still think that there’s a fundamental problem with any work of entertainment that pretends that horrific violence is of no consequence, where the principal audience impulse that is being gratified is sadism.