' Cinema Romantico: My Great Movies: Kill Bill

Thursday, August 20, 2009

My Great Movies: Kill Bill

The core of Quentin Tarantino's ode to his beloved chop-socky and kung fu films is as simple as you will see. Female Assassin leaves gang. Gang attempts to kill Female Assassin. Female Assassin goes into coma, comes to, and goes after Gang. That's it. Ah, but nothing is ever that simple with Quentin Tarantino. The esteemed Roger Ebert wrote: "The film is no story and all storytelling" and few filmmakers can tell a story like the infamous Q.T.

Much has been made of the beguiling Thurman being Tarantino's "muse". Indeed she seems to bring out the best in the filmmaker. At one point in my life I was almost as obsessed with the primary Thurman sequence of "Pulp Fiction" as Tarantino is with Thurman herself but in "Kill Bill" (Volumes 1 & 2) the whole obsession gets taken up a colossal notch. One could certainly spend considerable time analyzing the reasons he places his muse in so many uncompromising, graphic, sadistic situations but doing so would overlook perhaps an even more crucial fact - that is, "Kill Bill" is - in the words of L.A. Weekly's John Powers - "the 'Gone With the Wind' of exploitation pictures."


Well put, although I personally would christen it the "Once Upon A Time In The West" for my generation. While the influences, as with any Q.T. film, are many, it all mixes together to create something that is his entirely own - at least when taken in context of the whole movie and not foolishly breaking it down into two volumes, which we will discuss in a moment. "Kill Bill's" canvas is immense, yet intimate. It is larger than life, but so loving. It is a film where a character can stroll through a crowded airport with a samurai sword in hand and where an airplane descending into Tokyo isn't actually an airplane descending into Tokyo but more of a 1950's styled travel poster for how such an event would have looked and where a character shoots another character with a "truth syrup" that can kill and when the character who has been shot asks "How long does it take for this to kick in?" the other character responds, blithely, wonderfully, "Just long enough for me to finish my point."

As has become his signature, Tarantino freely messes with time. The movie starts well into its story, doubles back, jumps ahead, here, there, everywhere, but I'll provide the basics. Thurman (code name: Black Mamba) is The Bride, formerly an exceptionally skilled member of Bill's (David Carradine) Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. She learns she is pregnant (the greatest I-Just-Found-Out-I'm-Pregnant Scene in cinematic history). She leaves the game. She's set to marry, start a new life, you know how it goes. Bill finds out, turns up and he and the four remaining members of his squad - O-Renn Ishi (Lucy Liu), Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), Budd (Michael Madsen), and Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) - gun down The Bride and everyone else in the little, lonesome church in cold blood. The rest are dead, but The Bride survives and once she gets un-comatized lights out and gets herself a brand new samurai sword courtesy of the long dormant best samurai sword maker in the business, chalks up a death list (her fifth death list, actually) and determines to take no prisoners.

Warren Beatty turned down the role of Bill, purportedly because he viewed the script as being nothing beyond a procession of fight scenes. Maybe that is how the original screenplay read, I don't know, but it is not how the movie plays.

To be sure, there are fight scenes, a smattering of 'em, some are big, some are small, one repeatedly punches you in the gut and just when you think the biggest punch is about to come, the movie retracts its fist and pokes you in the eye (!) instead. The movie knows when a fight sequence needs to pound the audience relentlessly and when to take it to the brink of being too much and then retreat and reveal something else. They employ music as only Tarantino can, and offer up unique weaponry and such beautiful nonsense as the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique. And then there is the most haunting passage of all, luminously shot in black and white, that is haunting precisely because we only hear and never see.

Interestingly, the dialogue, aside from one extended monologue about the Superman comic and a recitation of facts in relation to the black mamba snake, is not quite the Tarantino Speak we have become conditioned to expect. Oh, much of it is still over the top or ridiculous or both but the pop culture is turned down and the pulp is turned up. The line that closes Volume 1 is so indescribably perfect I laughed out loud in the theater. I can only imagine Tarantino laughed out loud, too, when he wrote it.

As mentioned above, the film was released in two parts, Volume 1 in October 2003 and Volume 2 in April 2004. It was not intended this way originally, so why the change? Obvious reasons. A 3 hour plus film threatens box office. It also threatens people's meager, fragile attention spans. Let them be threatened, I say! This is an epic, damn it, not a serial and must be seen as a single unified piece. Returning to the esteemed Roger Ebert, he writes: "...this is all one film, and now that we see it whole, it's greater than its two parts."

Not all critics liked it. It is an incredibly violent film, but it's a preposterous violence. O-Renn slices off a mob boss's head and blood geysers high into the air, stopping, starting, stopping, starting, like a symphony, it's too fantastical to be taken seriously. Isn't it? PG-13 movies feature machine gun wielding macho men blowing scads and scads of people to smithereens and national landmarks blowing up while civilians scatter and scream but fake blood that lets you know it knows full well it's fake is somehow viewed as excessive and indulgent. I'm more offended watching a crappy action movie than a blood splattered masterpiece, but maybe that's just me.

It was also accused of being empty and soulness, nothing more than good old Q.T. copying images of the many movies to which "Kill Bill" is an ode. But the heart of the movie is The Bride and her quest and while her quest is filled with murder and mayhem it winds up being a storyline traced to the most primal aspect of natures - the lion and her cub, as the end credits put it. In certain cases of extreme distress it's said a mother could lift a bus, or something of the sort, and sometimes in cases of extreme distress a mother can punch her way out of her own grave and fight her way through 88 assassins.

And arguing the film needed to be split because of it's shifts in tone simply makes no sense. An epic's tone will shift. Can't be avoided. "The Deer Hunter" shifted tones. "Gone With the Wind" shifted tones. And hey, what did we already confirm? This is the "'Gone With the Wind' of exploitation pictures."

The first volume comes at you with a vengeance, or as The Bride says to O-Renn, "Attack me with everything you have." And it does. Over and over. It seems some critics left with their senses shot, beleaguered by the assault of carnage. I did not feel that way. (In fact, I left in such a rush of fantastic happiness that despite another horrendous week of work at Wells Fargo Home Mortgage I didn't even need a beer.) But this is because the unbroken "Kill Bill's" intent all along was to work the audience up to a ferocious, spectacular setpiece that would boldly conclude the second act, everyone gasping for breath, and then make a severe about-face, settling down (well, to an extent), transitioning into a movie that is more conversationlist and far more eerie.

The inevitable showdown between The Bride the title character completely dispenses with bloodshed. It's deeper. Is it over the top, too? Well, sure. It's over the top just like a great melodramatic saga should be.

I've written before that these tentpole epics of the past are nearly extinct because our current climate is engulfed with far too much irony. We can't let ourselves go. Thus, in these films Tarantino pulls off one of the neatest tricks I can recall. "Kill Bill" is coated in layers of winking irony to cater to the here and now but, at its core, it is sprawling, huge and heightened and really quite ridiculous. It may be made by a most decidedly modern filmmaker but it is as old fashioned as they come.