BOOKS AND ARTS APRIL 13, 2004
In an interview following the release of Reservoir Dogs in 1992, Tim Roth ventured that "I honestly think you could take the same script but reshoot it with women and it would work. It would be the most controversial film ever. ... You could call it Reservoir Bitches." It took more than a decade, but with Kill Bill Volume 1 (out on video this week), Quentin Tarantino finally made his Reservoir Bitches. And while it's not the most controversial film ever (nor even of the past twelve months), that was clearly the director's aspiration. Originally conceived as a single film but split into two "volumes" due to its length (Volume 2 opens in theaters on Friday), Kill Bill is, by most accounts, the most violent film ever released by a major studio. If that weren't enough to ensure its notoriety, the vast majority of that violence is performed by officially hot actresses Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, and Vivica A. Fox.
Kill Bill, then, is less a movie than a dare, and like most dares its outcome is unfortunate. Ever since Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino has been trying to live down to his reputation as the enfant terrible of American cinema, and with Kill Bill he has finally succeeded. Yes, yes, yes: It is stylishly conceived and lavishly photographed; it has a clever, wicked soundtrack; it contains more movie references than a semester of film school. It is also pitifully thin, morally repulsive, and boring as hell. The plot feels as though it was written on a cocktail napkin at two-o'clock in the morning: A nameless and pregnant Bride (Thurman), is gunned down at her wedding--along with groom, reverend, and assorted bystanders--by members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, a civic organization of which she was once a member. Shot in the head and left for dead, she instead falls into a coma, from which she awakes, sans child, four years later. She promptly jots down a "Death List" featuring the names of the five Vipers responsible for the wedding massacre. The first two--Vernita Green (Fox) and O-Ren Ishii (Liu)--she crosses off in the course of Volume 1. The other three--Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah, and David Carradine (he would be Bill)--will have to wait until Volume 2.
Tarantino obviously thinks that this is epic stuff, and it's true that with the right treatment it might have aspired to the mythic simplicity of say, Sergio Leone (spaghetti westerns being one of the many genres Tarantino nods to). But Tarantino doesn't have the patience to do epic. Kill Bill supplies neither emotional buildup nor emotional release. It's merely a series of provocations, obscenity presented as comedy. In the first 45 minutes of the film, viewers are treated to: the Bride killing Green with a knife in front of her four-year-old daughter; the Bride discovering that during her coma a hospital orderly rented her body out to necrophiliac rapists (she kills one such in the act by biting his face off, and then crushes the orderly's head in a door); and O-Ren's "origin" story, presented in anime cartoon form. As a child she, too, witnessed the gory murder of her parents, in this case by sword. But all is not lost: The Bride's narration informs us that "luckily" the murderer was a pedophile, enabling O-Ren at the age of eleven to get into his bed and slowly disembowel him. (The pedophilia-necrophilia motif comes up again later in a tossed-off scene in which O-Ren's bodyguard Gogo, a 17-year-old Japanese girl in a school uniform, asks an older man in a bar if he'd like to "screw" her; when he says yes, she guts him, his blood gushing over her plaid skirt and bare legs.) This is all, of course, terribly funny, right down to the details: the filthy, hair-covered jar of Vaseline the orderly offers the unconscious Bride's paramours; the young O-Ren hiding under a bed as her mother is stabbed to death on top of it, her blood seeping through the mattress to sprinkle O-Ren's face. (Lest anyone accuse Tarantino of indifference to the moral concerns implicit in such material, the filmmaker told the Chicago Tribune, "It would be really tough to do that scene in America using a real little girl. ... I don't know if I'd want to subject some poor little girl to these kind of images and these kind of acting things. Drip blood on a poor little girl's face in real life? Have some 11-year-old little girl straddling a guy as she stabs him to death? I don't know if I'd really want to be the person that does that. But in anime it's all good.")
The last hour of Kill Bill Volume 1 is tame by comparison, merely involving the Bride's acquisition and subsequent use of a samurai sword to dismember several dozen of O-Ren's flunkies, and ultimately O-Ren herself, at a Tokyo restaurant. The violence is ridiculous, in the literal sense of the word: When a baddie (there are no goodies) is decapitated, the neck-stump sprays blood like an infernal lawn sprinkler. These abattoir antics might amuse in limited doses (though John Cleese's Black Knight proved 30 years ago that the joke is not in the mutilation but in the obliviousness to it). Yet transgressing limits is Tarantino's whole point, and so we get stabbing after stabbing, severed limb after severed limb, arterial spray after arterial spray, until the walls are painted red and the floor piled high with body parts. And though the carnage is composed by famed martial-arts choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping, it lacks both the athletic poetry he brought to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the dizzying spatial geometry he presented in The Matrix. Rather, with the exception of a single sequence featuring a ball-and-chain, the fight in the restaurant (which runs to more than 20 minutes) feels like what it is: a long, mostly earthbound slog through bone and sinew. By the end, it's not funny, or beautiful, or even shocking. It's merely tiresome, an hour spent at the Safeway meat counter.
More surprising than the violence in Kill Bill, though, is the lack of anything else. One might expect that a movie so bloated that it requires a two-stage theatrical release could have found time for some of the director's trademark narrative inventiveness and pop banter. (Maybe those achievements await in Volume 2, but somehow I doubt it.) In Volume I, the plot is as linear as the to-do list that drives it. (Tarantino's Tarantinoesque decision to present the killing of Vernita Green out of sequence feels more like obligation than inspiration.) The dialogue is sub-leaden, apparently in self-defeating homage to poorly translated Japanese chop-socky. (For example: "It was one year after the massacre in El Paso, Texas, that Bill backed his Nippon progeny financially and philosophically in her Shakespearean in magnitude power struggle with the other Yakuza clans over who would rule vice in the city of Tokyo.") Even the film's signature line--O-Ren's taunt, "Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids"--sounds as though it was found on Schwarzenegger's cutting room floor. The situation isn't helped by the film's players, whose performances involve posing, fighting, and mouthing lines in which they obviously have no confidence, but nothing that could reasonably be described as acting. Unfortunately for the home viewer, all of these shortcomings are magnified on the small screen, where the visual spectacle cannot overwhelm the reality that this is, at its core, a dumb, ugly film. Will Volume 2 be any better? We'll see, but while it may exceed its Siamese sibling, it's hard to imagine it will redeem it.
In the end, what is most disappointing about Kill Bill Volume 1 is what it suggests about the development of its director. Throughout his still-brief career, Tarantino has seemed to grapple with the question of whether the bloodshed in his films represented a defining strength or an underlying weakness. Reservoir Dogs, while not as violent as its reputation, was nonetheless a brutal film, with a five-minute torture scene that still scandalizes. But one by one, his subsequent films--True Romance (1993), Pulp Fiction (1994), Jackie Brown (1997)--traced a clear trajectory away from meaningless bloodshed. Jackie Brown's relatively lukewarm reception, however, sent Tarantino back to the drawing board. As a friend of Tarantino's told Peter Biskind for a Vanity Fair article last year, "He doesn't trust himself as an artist to be able to make something that is not popular." And so, according to Biskind, after a few years in the wilderness he set out to make the "anti-Jackie Brown." Hence, Kill Bill.
Ironically, of all Tarantino's previous work, the film Kill Bill most resembles is the one he disowned: Natural Born Killers. Tarantino's script for the film--originally conceived as part of the True Romance screenplay--was acquired, rewritten, and directed by Oliver Stone in 1994. Tarantino was unhappy enough with the result that he took his name off the screenplay, settling instead for a story credit. (He also famously "bitch-slapped" one of the producers, Don Murphy, at an L.A. restaurant; the resulting $5 million lawsuit was settled out of court.) But despite Tarantino's dislike for Natural Born Killers, it has much in common with Kill Bill: the shifts from saturated color to black and white to garish animation (shifts executed in both cases by the cinematographer Robert Richardson), the deliberately campy sets and models, the sexual grotesques, and most of all, the endless, mindless savagery. (In the faint-praise department, it's worth mentioning that Kill Bill does lack the mendacious sanctimony of Natural Born Killers.)
Tarantino may have best explained his motivation for Kill Bill in an interview he gave to The Village Voice last year. "It's a sad clich? that most every director ends their career with a whimper," he noted. "You know, it's like, 'The sex drive goes, great! Now I can devote myself to my art.' They didn't realize the dick drive is connected to the art drive." Kill Bill supplies little evidence of this anatomical correlation. Instead, it's confirmation that sometimes a dick flick is just a dick flick.
The Home Movies List:
Five better killer-babe options
True Romance. If you need to watch a Tarantino heroine get medieval on someone's ass, you can't do better than the encounter between Patricia Arquette and a pre-"Sopranos" James Gandolfini.
Freeway. An early Reese Witherspoon vehicle that updates Red Riding Hood for a fiercer age. Kiefer Sutherland (who else?) plays the Wolf.
The Last Seduction. Though most of the violence Linda Fiorentino inflicts is emotional, she does remind us why to wear seat belts and handle mace with care.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Everything Kill Bill is not: beautiful, thoughtful, moving. It also highlights the difference between an actress who spent three months at kung-fu boot camp and one who has been kicking ass for decades: Uma wouldn't last five minutes with Michelle Yeoh.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Seasons 1-3. Perhaps the only instance of classic television spawned by a mediocre film. Later seasons are uneven, but it's hard to go wrong with the first three. Watch in sequence if at all possible.