Just how seriously does Quentin Tarantino take himself? I am increasingly convinced by the evidence on the screen that the director doesn’t take himself seriously at all, even though his more devoted followers do — and Miramax seems to have bought into that same mindset with the highly touted Kill Bill Vol. 1.
Not only are the trailers emblazoned with “The Fourth Film by Quentin Tarantino,” but that not entirely accurate claim also festoons the film itself. I’m not sure why it was decided to ignore Tarantino’s The Man From Hollywood segment of Four Rooms and miss the chance to Fellini-ize the man by calling this 4 1/2 — unless Fellini is just too art-house oriented for a man who is replicating the lower-depths of 1960s-’70s pop subculture.
I’m really hoping that Tarantino is tongue-in-cheek about it all — or that he’s playing off the famous story that part of what sold executive producer Danny DeVito on Pulp Fiction was Tarantino’s cheeky insistence on labeling the screenplay “Final Shooting Script.” The very fact that Tarantino opens his film with a scratchy, vintage-’70s drive-in-movie title announcing, “Our Feature Presentation,” followed by the claim that what follows is a Shaw Brothers Production filmed in “Shaw-Scope” suggests an agreeable lack of pretension. (For the uninitiated, the Shaw Brothers — Run Run Shaw and Run Me Shaw – produced exploitation martial-arts movies in the ’60s and ’70s, mostly of the Hong Kong variety, but with a few English-language oddities like Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires and Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold thrown in.)
If I can believe that, I’ll feel a lot less guilty about having enjoyed large chunks of this first installment of Kill Bill (we don’t get Vol. 2 until February). Is it a great film? No. It’s not even likely to be half of a great film (though that remains to be seen). However, it is marvelously inventive kitsch — marred only by excessive length and Tarantino’s apparent obsession to toss in everything and the kitchen sink. If the director’s buddy, Robert Rodriguez, made the ultimate “B” picture with Once Upon a Time in Mexico, then Tarantino has made the ultimate schlock drive-in movie here.
On that level, Kill Bill Vol. 1 is something of a twisted masterpiece. Unlike Rodriguez (a more natural born filmmaker), Tarantino’s influences are so far afield as to redefine obscurity. After all, we’re talking about a man who drew his inspiration for Darryl Hannah’s Elle Driver character — as well as some of the his overall plot — from the Bo Arne Vibenius (who?) picture They Call Her One Eye — a vile-minded, sadistic, Swedish, quasi-porno revenge opus from 1974 featuring porn star Christina Lindberg. Subtitled “A Cruel Picture,” One Eye starts with a young girl being raped by her grandfather — and then it gets really nasty, dragging its heroine through drug addiction, prostitution, an eye being cut out, and a killing spree while decked out in a variety of color-coordinated eye-patches. (I’ve only heard of this movie due to an unfortunate stint as a drive-in projectionist during my ill-spent youth.)
The “Cruel Picture” subtitle is definitely on the mark — and it’s something that informs Tarantino’s film as well (another significant difference between him and Rodriguez). That’s hardly surprising. Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs remains one of the most unpleasant movie-going experiences I’ve ever had for just that reason, and Pulp Fiction isn’t that far behind. (I remain convinced that if the latter were stripped of its arbitrary jigsaw-puzzle structure, no one would have even noticed it.)
However, there’s a difference this round. Bill is far more cheerful in its sadism, and never attempts anything approaching realism. Instead, it’s a movie that takes place in its own world — and one built entirely on the lowest form of pop culture in all its loopy lack of logic. Yes, it’s as gory and as violent as you’ve probably heard, but the violence resembles nothing so much as a Busby Berkeley production number with a maraschino cherry of mayhem on top, and the gore makes Monty Python and the Holy Grail look positively documentarian in approach. When a head or a limb gets lopped off in Bill (a not infrequent occurrence), the viewer is rewarded with a spray of Karo syrup and food coloring that gushes with only slightly less force than a fire hose. In Bill, characters are allowed to lose major limbs and 15 minutes later still be alive to be allowed by our heroine to crawl away in disgrace (“Leave your limbs — those belong to me now”). Let’s just say that realism or even marginal believability is not uppermost in Tarantino’s mind. And, no, there’s not much of a story — just a setup.
Uma Thurman is “The Bride” (aka “Black Mamba”), a paid assassin who tries to quit and finds herself getting offed (or so they think) along with her groom and the entire wedding party on her wedding day. Not dead, but in a coma, she awakens four years later to find she’s being prostituted by a sleazy night orderly, and improbably manages to muster the strength to escape, setting off on a revenge spree. That’s about it.
And for Tarantino’s purposes, that’s about enough — it’s maybe even too much. The film’s central failing is that the director doesn’t know when to stop. Even if you can get past the illogical nature of the script and the intentionally horrible dialogue (obviously meant to duplicate the dubbed dialogue of a martial arts import), it’s likely you’ll still get tripped up by the film’s sheer overkill. (Personally, I could easily do without the entire extended anime section that fills in Lucy Liu’s character’s past.)
At the same time, I won’t deny that this is marvelously creative filmmaking with nothing namby-pamby about it. Bill is a full-throated shout of a movie — and stylistically, it’s a huge leap forward for Tarantino, whose earlier filmmaking was rather utilitarian. There are moments of almost breathtaking beauty in Bill, especially in its final scenes. The big fight between Thurman and a non-stop parade of trained killers is a marvel (and, blessedly, not of CGI) that very theatrically arranges for the lights to go out at one point, leaving us nothing but stark black images against a luminous blue background — like a surreal variant on Berkeley’s “Pettin’ in the Park” number from Golddiggers of 1933. An obviously fake jet (on which Thurman is allowed to carry a Samurai sword!) gliding into Tokyo becomes a moment of hallucinatory grandeur.
The final showdown between Thurman and Liu in a snowy garden is, in itself, worth sitting through the entire film for. Bill may not be great, but it is — if not true filmmaking — still very, very true movie making.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke