Kill Bill

Six things I like about "Kill Bill (Volume 1)":
(From November 2003)

1. This is the first Quentin Tarantino movie I've ever wanted to see more than once. The others were clever and entertaining, but once you'd seen them once, you had the whole story.

2. It clearly takes place in an alternate universe, but you only learn that bit by bit. It's a different world from ours, both in large things (no police, obviously) to small (airplane seats have special storage slots so that passengers can store their samurai swords). I like movies which take place in a world slightly, subtly different from this one, like "eXistenZ." That's often a lot more interesting than movies with rocket ships and computer-generated monsters.

3. Uma Thurman. No performance in a movie like this will ever be nominated for an Oscar (hope I'm wrong), but it should be. Roger Ebert has pointed out that acting in a movie like this is, in some ways, a lot more difficult than acting in yet another "Sundance thumb-sucker." The reason is that there are no real characters in a movie like this, just action figures and genre stereotypes. If actors are going to create characters who seem like real people, they have to do all the work themselves, as Uma Thurman does here.

4. It continues a very interesting progression for Tarantino movies, which has never been commented on in anything I've read. His first movie, "Reservoir Dogs," was entirely about men. His second, "Pulp Fiction," was mostly about men, but there were a few women characters. "Jackie Brown" had a lot of men, but it was a woman who drove the plot. And "Kill Bill" is, of course, mostly about women.

5. There is a reason for the unreality of the characters that's beyond Tarantino's famous enthusiasm for various types of trashy movies. This is a puzzle film, as I think of them. "eXistenZ" was a puzzle film, and so was "The Ninth Gate." A puzzle film is a movie where it's really ideas which are the main thing. Characters and plot are secondary, and the traditional Hollywood rules of good guys and bad guys, and getting you to identify with the protagonist, and so on don't apply.

The "Ninth Gate" is really a movie about choices, and about how the Devil would work (if he were real). "eXistenZ" has quite a bit to say about reality, games, movies and sex, as I mentioned in my review. The "Matrix" movies are basically puzzle movies, too, which is probably why the creators thought it was okay to have such clunky dialogue and one-dimensional characters. Apparently their extensive reading never included George Bernard Shaw.

If "Kill Bill" is a puzzle movie, what is it about? Well, more will be clear after the second half comes out (I assume, or at least I hope), but for now there are two very clear threads at least. One thing which was pointed out in the current (Nov/Dec 03) issue of "Film Comment" is how much of the movie is about trying to belong to a culture that is foreign to you. Tarantino has been criticized repeated for his use of Black slang, especially how many times the word "nigger" appears in his films. Well, this is alluded to early in "Kill Bill" when Vernita Green mutters to herself, "I should have been motherfuckin' Black Mamba," a code name which instead belonged to Uma Thurman's character, Beatrix Kiddo.

But where this theme is really explored is in relation to Japanese culture. O-Ren Ishii, another of Beatrix' targets, becomes the boss of all crime in Tokyo despite being only half Japanese. At the first meeting of the crime council after she becomes its head, she asserts with great finality that this subject is off-limits. Later she mocks Beatrix for being a silly Caucasian girl playing with a Samurai sword. By the end of their fight, she apologizes for this insult, and, for this half of the movie, that apology is pretty much the climax. Beatrix has asserted her right to be part of the Japanese culture, first by her mastery of the language and then by her mastery of the weapon.

The other main theme which is visible so far is the idea of a woman taking revenge for being abused. Not only was Beatrix nearly murdered on her wedding day, she was pregnant at the time, and her husband and all the members of the wedding party were killed, but when she was in a coma for four years, a hospital orderly pimped out her unconscious body for $75 a pop.

The beginning of the movie asserts (quoting Star Trek, of course, not Les Liasons Dangereuses) that revenge is a dish best served cold, but Beatrix is not cold when she takes her revenge on Buck, the orderly. His truck, which she steals, says "Pussy Wagon" across the back in big letters, and, as she drives around in the Pussy Wagon, getting her revenge on "the cunts who did this to me, and the dick responsible," it's easy to see that she's changed the original meaning of "Pussy Wagon" pretty completely.

Each of the major female characters (Beatrix, O-Ren, Go Go and Vernita) has a persona of traditional non-threatening femininity (respectively, air-headed tourist, traditional Japanese okusan, simpering schoolgirl, and mom) which she adopts when it suits her. This cover is then dropped when it's time to get violent (or at least serious), usually very suddenly.

6. I think there's a big surprise coming in Volume 2 (at least one), something which will show the first part in a different light. Just a guess, but I think that's one reason the movie was split into two parts.

Six thoughts about "Kill Bill (Volume 2)":
(From November 2004)

1. If you think of Volume 2 as a sequel (as opposed to the second half of a two-part movie), it's a pretty gutsy one, since it is quite different from the first one, and its virtues are very different from the first one.

The first movie was visual, kinetic and very violent. This one is verbal, quiet and intimate (and occasionally very violent, of course). With the exception of the opening (the flashback to the wedding rehearsal massacre), none of the scenes have more than three characters in them, and many have only two.

There is also a lot more dialogue than in Volume I (except for the "Man from Okinawa" scene, and the "no subject will be taboo" scene). There's some wonderful humor (even now, saying "gargantuan" or "you should listen to this, 'cause this concerns you" makes me laugh), and some terrific performances.

In the first movie there's no way to calculate exactly how many people Beatrix kills (probably 25-50). In the second one, she kills exactly one (Bill, of course).

On the other hand, if you think of "Kill Bill" as a single 247-minute revenge movie delivered in two parts, then it is very well structured. If it is ever released as a single feature (and I understand it will be), I would go see it.

2. I predicted that something was going to be revealed about the plot in the second half which would change the way we looked at the first half. I was wrong, but only because I included the word "plot." The plot (apart from how Tarantino jumps back and forth in time) is very straightforward:

Beatrix Kiddo, a professional killer, finds out she's pregnant. She tries to go straight and get married to somebody who doesn't know about her past. Her former associates track her down and kill everybody in the wedding party. Beatrix survives, however, and is in a coma for four years. When she recovers, she resolves to kill her former associates, one at a time. She does.

That's about it, but that summary leaves out everything good about the movies, and it certainly leaves out what the movies are about. There are no plot revelations in Volume 2, but there is a big fat theme revelation, and it was worth waiting for.

Last November, I explained my interpretation of what the first movie was about. The second one is about motherhood. Beatrix gets pregnant (by her "murdering bastard" boss Bill) and she thinks this means everything has to change. A mother can't go jetting around the world killing people for money, can she?

Of course she can. Beatrix is wrong, as Bill points out, and her mistake sets the whole thing in motion. Motherhood doesn't replace everything else in your life, everything you enjoy and live for and are good at, or at least it shouldn't (and, ultimately, it won't).

I'm on an email list for Tori Amos fans, and after her daughter Natashya Lorien was born, some people on the list were saying, "oh, Tori won't be able to tour anymore (or she won't want to), she's a mother now."

But why should having a child mean you have to give up being a musician, or a lawyer, or an actress, or an investment banker, or a killer?

(Besides, at around the time that Tori's daughter was born, David Bowie had a child also, and nobody on was saying that he shouldn't ever tour anymore because of little Alexandria Zahra. So, it's obvious that there's a bit of a double standard in operation here.)

With this in mind, it's interesting to go back and watch Volume 1 after having seen and thought about Volume 2. In the "Showdown at House of Blue Leaves" section, there's a moment when you can tell that Beatrix is "in the zone," like a basketball player whose shots are all falling, or a pitcher who's throwing the ball exactly where he wants every time. This is what she does better than anybody else in the world, and, as Bill forces her to admit, it's what she loves.

At the end of the movie, both when she leaves the final murder scene and during the credits, she's carrying her daughter, but she's also still got her Hanzo sword. This is not "she's got her revenge, and now she lays down her weapon to raise her child." She's going to raise her child, but she's not going to give up doing what she loves.

Which is pretty much the moral of the movie.

3. One danger in a movie like this (a series of confrontations and fight scenes) is that it can seem like the point is for each fight scene to top the one before. Tarantino wisely doesn't do this. When you think, "hey, he'll never top what just happened," he takes things in a different direction, a different style, a different point, so that "can he top this?" isn't the issue.

In the "climactic" confrontation between Bill and Beatrix, for example, the whole fight lasts less than twenty seconds, and they are both sitting down throughout, but it's not at all unsatisfying. And, for those who thought it was "too easy," I'll just point out that in the last scenes Bill drinks quite a bit, and he is obviously fairly sloshed by the time he and Beatrix are sitting outside together. If you were going to face the greatest warrior in the world, would you be trying to get a buzz before the fight? Not if you expected to win, you wouldn't.

4. With a movie like this, you have to suspend disbelief, of course, and you have to accept the rules of an alternate universe. You have to be able to buy into some characters with really strong but fairly simple emotions, but not to let that emotional involvement distract you from the director giving you some Really Cool Bits to look at and listen to.

The original Really Cool Bits director was Alfred Hitchcock. As one critic put it, he was such a fetishist that he figured out how to turn the audience into fetishists, too. He would have understood the very careful way various elements are combined to produce some really great moments in this movie.

And Sir Alfred would have understood something else about Kill Bill, too, which is the strange feeling of watching a movie where the strongest emotional relationship is not between any of the characters, but between the director and the lead actress. Many people have picked up on Tarantino's comparison of his relationship with Uma Thurman to von Sternberg's relationship with Marlene Dietrich, but for a somewhat more recent example, see the movies where Hitchcock directed Grace Kelly.

What Thurman brings to "Kill Bill," in addition to providing a focus for the director's (ahem) enthusiasm, is that she obviously decided to play all this foolishness as if it really matters, as if these are all real people, and as if Beatrix is a real woman who has lost her baby, who has just been nearly murdered on her wedding day by the father of that baby.

Somehow, at least in my opinion, all of this manages to work, but I don't think I'd recommend it as a blueprint for how to make a good movie.

5. Orson Welles pointed out that the best thing which can happen to an actor is if you don't appear in Act 1, but everybody in Act 1 talks about your character. As soon as you appear in Act 2, the audience will think you're great because they've just heard you talked about for an hour. This doesn't always work (see "Apocalypse Now"), but it can work if the actor (and the writing, of course) lives up to the expectations, and David Carradine does. He plays Bill, who appeared in the first half only as a voice and as a hand fondling a sword, and as boots walking across a wooden floor before putting a bullet in Beatrix' head.

Bill appears for real in Volume 2, and you see what a bastard he is, but you see a lot more, including why Beatrix was in love with him. A great part and a great performance.

6. The Credits.

Tarantino loves actors, and he features them superbly in the closing credits. There are two complete sets of actor credits, one after the other, both including the entire cast of both movies. The first is set to a ferocious version of "Malaguena Salerosa" by Robert Rodriguez' band Chingon, and it showcases every performer perfectly, including a full acting credit for Yuen Wo-ping's fight team, which is richly deserved.

Two things I didn't like so much about "Kill Bill":

1. In Volume 1, during the "Showdown at House of Blue Leaves" section, first Beatrix and then Johnny Mo "run" up through the air to the balcony. Very "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," but not really right for this movie, which otherwise carefully treads the border between "extremely unlikely" and "absolutely impossible" without stepping over it.

2. In Volume 2, during the final conversation between Beatrix and Bill, he refers to her as a "natural born killer." In the context of the point he is making this is true, but obviously it's Tarantino's attempt to reclaim the phrase from Oliver Stone (Tarantino wrote the original story for "Natural Born Killers." and he hated the final result). I can understand the impulse, but I'm sorry. NBK is a phenomenon in a much larger world than the one Quentin Tarantino inhabits, and there's no way for him to make it his again.

My favorite "Kill Bill" theory:

O-Ren Ishii gets a whole section of the movie about her "origin" and early life. This doesn't seem so odd at the time, this is the sort of movie where all the characters might get origin stories. But they don't, even though some of them (Beatrix and Bill, for example) are more central to the story.

So, why does O-Ren get an origin story? Is it just because Tarantino wanted to do an anime sequence? Well, that's one theory, but I found a different theory online that I like a lot better.

When O-Ren's parents are killed, there is a character in the room, an assassin who works for the mob boss who kills her mother. He is tall and lean, with a shock of straight hair, wearing a suit, carrying a sword which looks an awful lot like a Hanzo sword, and he kills O-Ren's father, but she never sees his face because she's hiding under the bed.

What if that guy is Bill? Hattori Hanzo's former student who betrayed Hanzo's teachings by going to work for a yakuza boss. Who knows full well when O-ren comes to work for him later on that he killed her father and she doesn't know it because she never saw his face from under the bed. That guy would really be a bastard, wouldn't he?

One final thought. Don't rule out a "Kill Bill Volume 3" someday. There are three major characters left alive at the end of Volume 2 who have great reason to seek vengeance on Beatrix at some point.

Kill Bill

Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino,
based on the character The Bride, created by Q & U
Beatrix Kiddo : Uma Thurman
Bill : David Carradine
O-Ren Ishii : Lucy Liu
Vernita Green : Vivica A. Fox
Budd : Michael Madsen
Elle Driver : Daryl Hannah
Earl McGraw & Esteban Vihaio : Michael Parks
Johnny Mo & Pai Mei : Gordon Liu
Nikki Bell : Ambrosia Kelley
Edgar McGraw : James Parks
Buck : Michael Bowen
Trucker : Jonathan Loughran
Hattori Hanzo : Sonny Chiba
Bald Guy : Kenji Ohba
Sofie Fatale : Julie Dreyfus
Gogo Yubari : Chiaki Kuriyama
The 5,6,7,8's as themselves
Proprietor: Yuki Kazamatsuri
Charlie Brown : Sakichi Satô
The Yuen Wo-Ping Fight Team as The Crazy 88's
Reverend Harmony : Bo Svenson
Mrs. Harmony : Jeannie Epper
Tommy Plympton : Chris Nelson
Rufus : Samuel L. Jackson
Larry Gomez : Larry Bishop
Karen : Helen Kim

and introducing
Perla Haney-Jardine as B.B.

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