Last of the Monster Kids

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Saturday, January 18, 2014

Director Report Card: Quentin Tarantino (2003)

5. Kill Bill: Vol. 1

Quentin Tarantino’s first three features came in quick succession. Following “Jackie Brown,” the director took six years off. In retrospect, the long break isn’t surprising. The director was no doubt aware of the somewhat muted reaction that greeted “Jackie Brown.” I suspect he wanted to return to film making with something truly impressive, wanted to take his time developing an exciting new film. With “Kill Bill,” the director was trying something he had never attempted before. He was making an action film, the style of flick Vince or Jules would enjoy. Whether or not his particular style could adapt to such a genre was something the filmmaker’s fanboys, and perhaps the director himself, were eagerly anticipating.

Critics of Tarantino refer to “Kill Bill” as the start of the director’s self-indulgent period. There is some truth to this. The filmmaker has always built his films on the backs of others, drawing ideas and images from previous pictures both famous and obscure. “Kill Bill” shows the director’s love of references moving into overdrive, creating a patchwork made of smaller scenes from other movies. The premise, a woman seeking revenge, was inspired by “Lady Snowblood” and “The Bride Wore Black,” influences the film openly acknowledges. The Bride wears Bruce Lee’s yellow jumpsuit from “The Game of Death” while Daryl Hannah’s Elle Driver takes her inspiration from “Thriller: A Cruel Picture.” Chiaki Kuriyama plays a crotch-stabbing school girl in both this film and “Battle Royale.” The movie’s cast is sprinkled with genre stars like Sonny Chiba, David Carradine, and Michael Parks. “Vol. 1” and Tobe Hooper’s “Eaten Alive” both feature characters named Buck who are rearin’ to fuck. The film has no original score, the music instead taken from spaghetti westerns, Italian giallos, blaxploitation flicks, American drive-in cinema, and Japanese samurai and yakuza films. These same genres inform “Kill Bill” completely.

Is this thievery? I would say no. Tarantino imitates and references out of a sincere love of the source material. As a cinematic collage, “Kill Bill” is electrifying. It’s not a game of “spot the references,” but rather a way to imbue the movie with that anything-can-happen spirit that drove the best of seventies cinema. While the bits and pieces might be from countless sources, the soul of the movie is pure Tarantino. The director wants to share his love of cinema with us and his own movies are the vehicles for that love.

The director indulges his other loves too. The bullet-to-the-head opening establishes this as a story that moves even if that means getting ahead of the audience. The opening chapter actually takes place after the film’s main story is resolved. What is the purpose of the non-linear storytelling? Here, it is simply to drawl the audience in, to start with action before rolling out the story proper. The rest of the film is told in relatively straight-forward fashion, save an extensive flashback. Tarantino is mostly playing around with the timeline simply for the fun of it, establishing the film’s impish sense of humor.

The opening knife fight is a theme-establishing moment as well. Over his career, Tarantino has been accused of glorifying violence. The post-fight conversation between the Bride and Vernita swiftly, subtly establishes what the entire sage is about. “Kill Bill” is about having a good reason for violence. The Bride was screwed over, robbed of her daughter, and of years of her life. What Bill and the Vipers did to the Bride is a good example of violence without justification. What Budd says near the film’s end sums it up, “She deserves her revenge.” From a meta-approach, “Kill Bill” is Tarantino justifying his own use of violence in film. Yet the movie doesn’t wimp out, even with its massive stylization. The Bride murders Vernita in front of her daughter. Uma’s heroine flatly acknowledges that as a good reason for revenge as well, the film’s protagonist not getting out clean. “Kill Bill” isn’t merely a revenge saga, it’s a sage about revenge, about the politics and wages of violence.

It’s a good thing the violence has a reason. Because “Kill Bill” is the director’s most violent film. The violence is pushed to absurd heights, geysers of blood shooting from cleaved limbs. The exaggerated bloodshed, inspired by the theatrical arterial spray of Japanese samurai flicks, is first introduced during an animated sequence. This smartly gets the audience used to the film’s heightened reality. So when, later on, foundations of gore spurt from chest, arms, and necks, the audience accepts it. Compare the House of Blue Leaves brawl with the opening knife fight. One is close-up and personal, the combatants flinching with each blow, smashed with glass tables and shelves. The violence is brutally efficient. Not coincidentally, this moment also shows the Bride at her most morally ambiguous. Later on, when the blood starts spraying everywhere like crazy, we’re totally on the Bride’s side. Maybe it’s just Tarantino diversifying his heroine’s badass-itude. Or maybe the film’s action actually informs its moral standing.

For a filmmaker well known for scenes of people standing around and talking, “Kill Bill” moved the director into new territory. “Kill Bill” is a full-on action movie, opening with a brutal knife fight, detouring into a gory anime, before climaxing in a forty-minute long sword battle, the Bride tearing through sixty some henchmen in short order. The House of Blue Leaves battle is awesome, one of the most memorable action set pieces of our time. The action is complex and varied. One-on-one battles slowly ramp up. The battle between the Bride and Gogo is deftly orchestrated, the film’s hero being nicely tested. This sub-boss battle makes the chaos that follows more earned. The Bride doesn’t simply slice through the goons, Raizo Ichikawa-style. She leaps through the air, rolls around on the ground, runs up stair banisters, swings on bamboo posts, cuts through rice paper doors, hacks henchman in twain, tosses axes, and yanks an eyeball out. Every time an enemy is dispatched, that blast of blood follows. Eventually, the gore evolves into a running joke, adding to the film’s delirious tone. With a brawl this elaborate and purely entertaining, Quentin graduated successfully to action auteur.

The House of Blue Leaves set-piece is so fantastic that the following one-on-one duel between the Bride and O-ren sort of pales in comparison. This isn’t a super solider devastating an army of grossly outmatched mooks. This is two equals facing off. That’s fine and the duel plays very well on subsequent viewings. The sword fight is weighted down by the actress, the stakes clearly high. But the first time I saw “Vol. 1,” I remember being a little let down. Maybe the movie is too awesome too soon.

Tarantino’s evolution into an action filmmaker is tied in with his evolution as a stylist. Compared to his previous films, “Kill Bill” draws wanton attention to its direction. Rough crash-zooms punctuate scenes, visually establishing character connections. The use of split screen in a hospital seems excessive at first but rather brilliantly sets the tone, ascertaining Elle Driver as the Bride’s rival and Bill as a man with massive power over these women. The flight into Tokyo is high-lighted by a miniature of the city, right out of a Godzilla movie. The House of Blue Leaves is set up during a DePalma-style long-shot, brilliantly scored to the 5,6,7,8s. During the brawl, the film’s colors go out of control, switching to stylish black-and-white to silhouetted blue. The film’s resolution have a distinct desaturation to the color, mirroring the Bride’s exhaustion after the intense battle. Is some of it style-for-style’s sake? Probably. Does that make it any less awesome? Nope.

The movie’s most excessive stylistic exercise is obviously the anime segue. Animated by Production I.G., the company behind “Ghosts in the Shell” and “FLCL,” the sequence has a loose, sketchy quality to it. It’s not the big eyes, pointy chins, and wacky hair colors you might expect from the “anime” label. Weirdly, the animated sequence is one of the most bracingly violent moments in the film. The violence here is sadistic, villains inflicting cruel torture on innocents. Example: O-Ren’s dad smashing a dude skull. Or a mattress soaked through with blood. The animation allows Tarantino to take the film’s stylized violence even further, with a room painted with blood and a long-range head shot from the perspective of the bullet. Not leaving the cartoons out, Quentin also drops references to “Kite” and “Golgo 13” right around these parts. It’s cool but manages to justify its existence.

The effect the movie’s action has on the audience is directly tied in with its music. The use of “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” establish the melancholy soul at the film’s core. The screeching horns of the “Ironside” theme song perfectly shows how one character feels about another, evolving into one of the film’s best running gags. Bernard Herrmann’s whistled “Twisted Nerve” theme brilliantly powers its chosen scene. The “Lily Chou-Chou” soundtrack adds a dreamy quality to Hatorri Hanzo’s attic. The “Green Hornet” theme song is nicely utilized, ramping up the energy leading to the film’s big battle. A brief segment from Santa Esmeralda’s disco-calypso classic “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” adds a mythic, poetic quality to the Bride and O-ren’s confrontation. The film’s use of “Battle Without Honor or Humanity” has become iconic, widely used in car commercials and movie trailers. My favorite bit of music in the film is actually easy to miss. During the climatic battle, we briefly hear the pulsing, ramping synth of Charles Bernstein’s “White Lightening” score. Meanwhile, when the Bride employs her deadly break dancing moves, The Human Beinz’ “Nobody but Me” plays, a brilliant bit of musical stunt casting. It adds to the absurdity of the moment while providing a manic energy. Finally, Meiko Kaji’s mournful “The Flower of Carnage” takes us, wrapping the film up on an emotional level while explicitly acknowledging the “Lady Snowblood” connection.

Each Tarantino film flick seemed destined to relaunch a star’s career. “Kill Bill” wound up reviving Uma Thurman’s flailing career. Somewhat ironic given the director was largely responsible for making her popular in the first place. The Bride is a once-in-a-life-time character and Thurman plays it to the hilt. You wouldn’t expect her to be a believable action star. Somehow, her lithe form makes her acrobatic disposal of bad guys plausible. Uma has no problem getting down and gritty in the battles either, taking hits and getting spray with viscera. Thurman, when not swinging a samurai sword, brings an animal ferocity to the part. When screaming for her lost child or slamming a head in a door, you feel her intense emotional agony. Thurman sells the sometimes thick dialogue skillfully and with ease. Tarantino has called Uma his muse and he wrote a great character, perfectly matched with her skills. Sadly, I don’t foresee Thurman ever topping the Bride.

The supporting cast is rich too. My personal fave is probably Sonny Chiba’s small role. While we’re use to Chiba dismantling thugs with his bare hands, seeing him gravely intone serious dialogue is surprisingly effective. Lucy Liu is another actress who rarely gets her fare due. For proof of her excellence, check out the “Queen of the Crime Council” sequence. Liu skillfully mixes humor and raw emotion, conveying power and likability. O-ren Ishii might be a bad guy but she’s still awfully enjoyable. I would never consider Vivica A. Fox an underrated actress before this but she certainly makes Vernita Green a memorable character, as brief as her screen time is. David Carradine and Daryl Hannah would get more screen-time in volume two yet Carradine’s silky voice cast a long shadow, as does Hannah’s single scene appearance. And I can’t help but love Chiaki Kuriyama’s Gogo Yubari, a character that gleefully turns the Japanese school girl stereotype on its head. How she swings from giggly and light to coldly sadistic is a joy to watch. Kuriyama should have had a more international career following this.

“Kill Bill Volume 1” ends on a cliff-hanger. Unlike some modern multi-part blockbusters I could name, this doesn’t feel exploitative. Instead, the audience is left wanting more. Those final minute introduce enough of a hook to hold viewers over for another year. Though it’s been a decade, I still clearly remember seeing “Vol. 1” in the theater and having a blast. It holds up, remaining one of the ultimate Tarantino experiences. [Grade: A]

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