October 23, 2003

Kill Bill

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Critics have referred to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill as “a labor of love” ever since the script was written over five years ago. They are severely understating the facts: Kill Bill is Quentin Tarantino’s 111 minute orgasm. The only question is: will it be as good for the audience as it was for the director?

Tarantino’s triumph is that, even while he fails to make a movie that approaches the effortless genius of Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, he communicates his passion for the material in action sequences that are genuinely thrilling. The seams on his much copied technique are showing a bit, but Kill Bill still provides the sort of giddy, shocked “I can’t believe he just pulled that off” experience that I’ve always looked for in his films.

Unexpectedly, the plot isn’t the complicated puzzle of his earlier films. Its sole purpose is to give his heroine, The Bride (Uma Thurman), a cause equal to her abilities and the excuse to show them off. Code-named Black Mamba, The Bride was once a member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (D.iV.A.S. — Tarantino is so much fun when he’s camp), the other members of which murdered everyone at her wedding. The massacre was executed under the order of Bill, the squad’s boss and The Bride’s former lover. Actually, as the film unwinds, it becomes apparent that Bill has had a relationship with nearly every member of the squad except Michael Madsen’s Bud, which raises the question as to how in the hell someone who looks like David Carradine ever ended up with so many hot chicks. My guess is that it’s the voice.

The Bride, of course, survives a beating and a bullet to the brain, and wakes up from a coma four years later to extract her revenge, which she does while shedding more blood in more inventive ways than anyone besides Tarantino ever would have thought possible. The movie whirs past in a series of brilliantly shot and choreographed vignettes, with Thurman taking on an underhanded Mom, a truly psycho (even for this movie) schoolgirl, and the icily poised head of the Japanese crime world (Lucy Liu). The movie is saved from being a mere exercise in technique with perfectly applied grace notes, underplayed scenes, and Tarantino’s fractured timeline. Rather than make The Bride’s opponents cardboard cutouts, Tarantino gave Liu’s O-ren Ishii a ravishingly shot, traumatic childhood. Her background sequence is shot in traditional Anime style, and his choice has the effect of burning the events indelibly on the minds of the audience, the brightly colored animation and surreal, vicious beauty making the scene almost hyper-real. It remains with us throughout the movie, just as it remains with O-ren throughout her life.

The showdown with O-ren, when it finally comes, has all the courtliness of a joust between knights, and Thurman and Liu find exactly the right hushed, sincere tone for the climax of the film, even following one of the most bravura fight scenes ever shot. The delayed gratification does more than build tension, it allows Tarantino to build character. Mid-way through her journey, Tarantino pauses and returns to the Bride’s awakening, where her inconsolable sobs remind us that she was once human. With that one scene, Tarantino engages the audience firmly on The Bride’s side, and the result is that we have, instead of an empty spectacle, a story.

Archived article by Erica Stein