Kill Bill: Vol. 1
It sometimes seems as if Quentin Tarantino – in terms of his actual movies, rather than nearly getting Uma killed in an auto stunt – is the last bastion of can-do-no-wrong on the Internet. Or at very least, has the preponderance of its vocal weight behind him. Back when his first two movies proper were coming out, so before online was really a thing, I’d likely have agreed, but by about the time the Kill Bills arrived, I’d have admitted I was having serious pause that he was all he was cracked up to be. Because the Kill Bills aren’t very good, and they’ve rather characterised his hermetically sealed wallowing in obscure media trash and genre cul-de-sacs approach to his art ever since. Sometimes to entertaining effect, sometimes less so, but always ever-more entrenching his furrow. As Neil Norman noted in his Evening Standard review, “Tarantino has attempted (and largely succeeded) in making a movie whose only reality is that of celluloid”. Extend that to an entire directorial career.
It’s easy to put the existence of Kill Bill down to Tarantino’s foot fetish for/infatuation with Uma, which isn’t often the recipe for success (habitually casting a muse, that is, rather than getting titillated by tootsies, but that too). It may be an unpopular view, but I don’t think Thurman really carries the picture(s). I’m not singling her out either; this is probably the least inspiring cast Tarantino has assembled – certainly this side of Death Proof – and when combined with material more focussed on showcasing his technical prowess than plot and character, the results are quite ponderous and threadbare at times.
You can only really justify a four-hour movie if you have a lot of story or you’re Sergio Leone, and despite his incessant use of Ennio Morricone, Tarantino can lay a claim to neither. I can’t help feeling the reason he goes back to Morricone so much is that the composer papers over an emotional hole Tarantino, in his glibness, can’t help but leave gaping. And, while I’m generally on board with his musical choices, regardless of my view of the overall movie, Kill Bill is one where their quirkiness occasionally gets on my wick (the Green Hornet Theme, for example). Of course, one person’s cute/cool is another’s unwarranted indulgence.
Is Quentin a good action director? Undoubtedly. But not as good as, at his best, he is a screenwriter. The House of the Blue Leaves sequence is very impressive… until it doesn’t know when to quit. Even with its comic arterial spurting, Tarantino’s unable to summon the giddy stylistic excess of a Raimi or Jackson. Instead, it’s in the one-on-ones – schoolgirl-styled Chiaki Kuriyama from Battle Royale, for example – that he engages visually the way he can dramatically, rather than trying to outdo all who have gone before (the same kind of hubris that leads to a roundly slated lead performance on Broadway).
For me, the entrance of O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Lui) and her select guard, to the strains of Tomoyasu Hotei’s Battle Without Honor or Humanity, is the most resonant visual in the movie(s), and it’s the kind of simple but effective composition that goes back to Reservoir Dogs. Elsewhere, Quentin’s overcome by his rampant homage mode, with zooms imitating dodgy, unfinessed techniques from the exploitation movies he adores. Which is fine, and fun, and the clash of serious performance (Thurman) with a director intent on doodling works to a degree, but it’s never as much fun as it could be. I don’t find myself enjoying spending time with Kill Bill’s characters (by which, I don’t mean I need to like them), with one exception, so pretty much all there is to savour in its place is his action (and doodles).
Is Quentin consciously ripping off Lady Snowblood? Well, it’s difficult to believe that, with his encyclopaedic knowledge, he isn’t conscious of where his influences lie in every one of his films. I don’t actually think his being the ultimate magpie is a biggie, since he’s a director who so expressly makes everything his own. I just wish that, in this case, the appropriations were in aid of something more impressive. As Jonathan Rosenbaum noted, Kill Bill consists of “hyperbolic revenge plots and phallic Amazonian women behaving like nine-year old boys”.
Is there much I do like here? Julie Dreyfus makes an impression as Lui’s lieutenant, much more so than the larger roles Lui, Thurman and Daryl Hannah have. But Kill Bill has no wit, either in character or structure. Nor has it any restraint, but complaining about that when Quentin’s expressly invoking grindhouse, martial arts, spaghettis westerns and Blaxploitation is rather redundant. One might argue the depraved anime sequence is Tarantino holding back when it comes to illustrating the depths he’s willing to take his story. I rather see it as evidence of why it isn’t always beneficial to feed your twisted imagination.
This is the seediest and most tawdry the director has been since his adolescent From Dusk till Dawn script, populating the corners of his picture with rapists, misogynists and deviants, yet perversely believing he, with his faux-alpha posturing, is justified via positioning a progressive feminist warrior at the centre (in a retro Bruce Lee tracksuit, and with a whole scene about her toes).
Peter Biskind, in Down and Dirty Pictures, had it that, following Pulp Fiction, Tarantino was “almost paralyzed by the vexing question: What next?” and that “It was Welles after Citizen Kane” (which as lofty as that sounds, is actually kind of true. Quentin would surely go along with that kind of mythologising). Except that Welles didn’t get stoned off his face and boast about bitch slapping Don Murphy. Plus, Orson was a good actor. The resultant second guessing may be why Jackie Brown is good but not great, caught between the stools of serious literary adaptation and Blaxploitation riff (notably, Harvey Scissorhands thought it was half an hour too long, and he was probably right. Of course, he wasn’t saying that when it came to the prospect of releasing one movie as two).
Certainly, there’s something besides simply the dashing of his acting dreams behind the six-year filmmaking hiatus following Jackie Brown; Biskind suggests the Elmore Leonard adaptation “seemed to be a disappointment to him”, that Quentin’s antennae were no longer tuned “to the twitches of the zeitgeist, aquiver with each ripple of the culture”. And then, the Kill Bills arrived. And they were successes, but not on the level one might have expected of a beloved filmmaker who’d done little of note in more than half a decade. Tarantino’s response? He doubled down on the most dubious element of his new movie(s): the grindhouse homage.