Once Upon a Time in the East
I first met Quentin Tarantino at the 1992 Toronto Film Festival after a screening of Reservoir Dogs. He was sitting on a sofa in the Miramax suite talking a mile a minute, but when the publicist introduced us, he bounded to his feet. "John Powers," he yelped, and began quoting from a pan I'd written of Michael Cimino's Year of the Dragon in these pages, back in 1985. Just as my head was beginning to swell, the recitation stopped, and he said, "I've waited seven years to tell you why you're wrong." Which he promptly began to do in such voluminous detail and with such breathless energy—he's the kind of talker who listens with his tongue—that I began grinning at his sheer brio.
Eleven long years have passed, and in that time Tarantino has won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, become an international icon, dated Mira Sorvino, spawned hundreds of imitators and an anti-Tarantino backlash, been abused for the supposed failure of Jackie Brown, engaged in high-profile bar fights, endured cruel mockery for his acting on and off Broadway, disappeared from movie screens for six years and been declared "over" more times than rap. Through it all, one thing has remained constant—his headlong crush on cinema. This passion shines through every moment of his new movie Kill Bill, Vol. 1, which is at once an astonishing piece of filmmaking and, quite possibly, an Olympian folly. For Tarantino hasn't made just another movie. He's tried to make the Ultimate Exploitation Picture, a grind-house Ulysses. Kill Bill restlessly moves among many styles and genres in an attempt to embrace them all: spaghetti Westerns, kung-fu movies, samurai flicks, yakuza pictures, Japanese anime and (as often happens with Tarantino) the Jacobean revenge drama in all its corpuscular glory. This is the bloodiest—or at least the reddest—movie you'll see all year.
The story is basically Charlie's Angels in Hell. Uma Thurman stars as The Bride, a former killer with the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, led by the sinister Bill (David Carradine, present—so far—only as a voice). On her wedding day, the other members of the outlaw band slaughter The Bride's wedding party and leave her for dead. Tarantino has long been drawn to characters who live by precise ethical code, and boy, does his heroine have one. Rather like Jeanne Moreau's avenging newlywed in Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black (her husband was shot on the church steps following the ceremony), The Bride seeks to exact a suitable revenge. She sets about exterminating everyone responsible, murdering her way through the Deadly Viper ranks until, presumably, she's finally able to kill Bill. This long vendetta carries her, in Vol. 1, from a Southwest hospital where her comatose body is rented out to yokels as a sex toy (shades of The Gimp!), to a candy-colored house in Pasadena where she clashes blades with the former Viper known as Copperhead (Vivica A. Fox), and across the Pacific to Okinawa where a retired ninja (Japanese cult actor Sonny Chiba) makes her a special sword. She needs it for her face-off with O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), the ex-Viper queenpin of Tokyo's yakuzaland who's protected by a gang known as the Crazy 88 and a psychopathic teenager, Go Go Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama), clad in one of those schoolgirl uniforms of which middle-aged Japanese pervs are so very fond.
While The Bride's path couldn't be more straightforward—she plows ahead like a shark—Tarantino's way of mapping it brims with his trademark playfulness. Presented as a series of episodic chapters with the fancy titles you'd find in a Chinese sword-fighting novel (The Blood-Spattered Bride), Kill Bill plays hopscotch with space and time, sometimes leaping ahead, sometimes back, hopping in and out of flashbacks with the glee of a flea who's discovered a new kennel. Tarantino isn't shy about laying on the flourishes—he moves neatly between color and ravishing black-and-white photography, trots out gaudy CGI effects (a jetliner practically skims the Tokyo rooftops) and takes the radical step of telling O-Ren Ishii's back story entirely in anime. Over the years, I've heard people grumble that Tarantino's storytelling is full of cheap if enjoyable gimmicks, but if that's true, why have so few filmmakers emulated his gimmickry? The short answer is, it takes enormous skill to pull such things off. It's not easy to leapfrog between different time frames or suddenly shift tones—as when, during the knife fight between Thurman and Fox, we see in the picture window behind them a yellow school bus dropping off Copperhead's little girl.
Perhaps because Tarantino became so famous so quickly, it's been easy to forget that he's an uncommonly talented filmmaker, with a knack for vivid imagery (Kill Bill takes him to new levels of flash), an impeccable ear for music selection (he wrings startling emotional depth from Nancy Sinatra's cover of "Bang-Bang") and a rare generosity toward his performers. Enthralled by his own thespian yearnings (and disappointments), this is a director who knows how to love his actors. He taps into the reservoirs of gravitas in Chiba, retools our whole image of Daryl Hannah (who revels in playing a foul-tempered, eye-patch-wearing assassin) and reveals inner resources in his lead actress that haven't been apparent since Pulp Fiction. Although the towering Thurman is usually treated as something of an eroticized force of nature, her sly, angry, heartfelt performance here brings humanity to an otherwise shallow tale that risks being all blood and no passion. She turns The Bride into an emblem of soulfulness in a sea of creeps and killers.
For the opening 45 minutes, Vol. 1 is flat-out terrific. Tarantino takes the stuff of Asian movies, plunks it down on American soil and gives it a giddy spin of his own. But excitement starts grinding down once The Bride flies off to Japan. It's not exactly that the filmmaking gets lazy—the picture's intensely imagined and choreographed from beginning to end—but the inventiveness feels secondhand, fetishistic. In William Gibson's novel Pattern Recognition, the heroine wears a Japanese copy of a World War II flight jacket that is identical to the original but actually much more precisely and expensively made. One observes the same thing in Tarantino's Japanese sequences: He doesn't so much create something new as make even more manically rococo versions of sequences that already exist.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the climactic 20-minute "Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves," in which The Bride's duel with O-Ren Ishii requires her to first fight her way through the Crazy 88 (yes, she must dispatch the whole black-and-white keyboard of assassins) and the murderous teenager Go Go Yubari, who wields a kind of lethal yo-yo. Obviously eager to produce a classic set piece, Tarantino milks every possibility from this battle. He shoots it in color, then in black-and-white, then in silhouette; he takes us from inside a raucous nightclub with shrieking rock-music chicks, to a snowy courtyard whose silence is broken only by the eerie thock of a bamboo waterspout bumping periodically against its basin. Yet even as this scene is worked through in lavish detail, it's also rather dull. One great pleasure of Asian action cinema is its hyperkinetic ease, but here the choreography lacks the knockabout nimbleness you hope for in a chopsocky swordfight, and all of Tarantino's directorial tricks (we watch a hatchet flying past us end in slow motion) can't perk up the ponderous redundancy of all those twitching, lopped-off limbs and geysers of blood. Like the free-for-all in Matrix Reloaded in which the Mr. Smiths keep arriving and you wish Neo would just fly the hell out of there, the girl-power showdown at the House of Blue Leaves continues for so long that it stops the story's momentum dead in its tracks.
Even as Kill Bill marks a clear advance in Tarantino's technical facility—other directors will be strip-mining his ideas for years to come—it's an equally clear retreat from the dawning maturity of Jackie Brown, which he doesn't seem to realize is his best and richest film. This battle royal marks the end of Vol. 1. Now, it may be that releasing Kill Bill as two separate films will prove a shrewd commercial move, especially when Miramax can later bring out a full-length director's cut as a separate DVD. (Three movies for the price of one!) But artistically and emotionally, cutting the movie in half is a real mistake, akin to bringing out one film called The Good, the Bad and a second one titled And the Ugly.
I left the theater feeling cheated, not for the most part by what I'd seen, but by what I hadn't. After all, Tarantino has scaled Kill Bill as a revenge epic intended to accomplish two very difficult objectives: make us feel the exhausting weight of The Bride's ordeal, her agon, while creating a mythic compendium of samurai, yakuza, cowboy and kung-fu films that's all the more dazzling in that each new scene presents us with a different cinematic vision. You'd have to see all of Kill Bill in one sitting to do justice to this elaborate conception. In the three-hour version, the House of Blue Leaves will likely prove a powerful centerpiece, forcing us to take the full measure of The Bride's weary resolve when, after her long, deadly battle with O-Ren Ishii, we grasp that she—and we—are only halfway home. Catching the rest of her story next February just isn't the same.
In the press kit, Tarantino himself defends the decision to make two volumes: "This is supposed to be my version of a grind-house movie, and the very idea of a three-hour grind-house movie is a contradiction in terms. It seemed pretentious, whereas two 90-minute grind-house movies seems more appropriate."
Now, there's no denying that Tarantino's eager to give Kill Bill a tacky, freewheeling air, from quoting the Klingons in the opening epigraph to having the credits call the picture "The 4th Movie by Quentin Tarantino." That said, Vol. 1is no more an authentic grind-house movie than Raiders of the Lost Ark was an old-time serial: It involves too much money, po-mo savvy and self-conscious artistry. Although Tarantino grew up surrounded by a gorier pop culture than did Spielberg or Lucas, he's essentially doing here what those directors did a quarter-century ago—creating big-budget versions of the cheesy stuff they grooved on as kids. But as the score's evocations of (and samples from) Ennio Morricone make obvious, his ambition and style actually come much closer to the Sergio Leone of Once Upon a Time in the West. Tarantino wants to do for Asian action cinema what Leone did for the Western—take a dream world already created by the movies and push its dreaminess to the point of self-conscious myth.
Early in his career, Tarantino was accused of ripping off other filmmakers—filching the climax of Reservoir Dogs from Ringo Lam's far inferior City on Fire, for example. Whenever I have mentioned such charges to Hong Kong filmmakers, they've laughed: We steal things all the time. That's how we make movies. And this is true not only in Hong Kong. Part of the electric excitement of modern culture is its delirious capacity for cross-pollination. One can only marvel how Dashiell Hammett's novel Red Harvest turned into Akira Kurosawa's samurai film Yojimbo, which became A Fistful of Dollars by Leone, whose grandiose style was further hyperbolized by John Woo, who then inspired Robert Rodriguez to make Once Upon a Time in Mexico, which ups the ante on Woo-ish mayhem while nodding back at Leone.
Still, when I first heard that Tarantino was making Kill Bill, I wondered whether he might be too late. Back in the early '90s, he'd been ahead of the curve, giving Sam Jackson's character Sonny Chiba shtick in Pulp Fiction and urging John Travolta to make pictures with Woo. But the world has changed in the last decade, and while the '70s' raging bulls and easy riders were inspired by Europe's various new waves, many of today's filmmakers are clearly turned on by Asia. Audiences now know Jackie Chan and Jet Li. They're familiar with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which skillfully Westernized its script for international consumption, and The Matrix, which laced its head-trip sci-fi with kung-fu fighting. Even Sofia Coppola's acclaimed Lost in Translation borrows heavily from Wong Kar-wai, the reigning master of urban melancholy, whose first U.S. release, Chungking Express, was brought out by none other than Quentin Tarantino. Whether this increasing awareness of Asian cinema will help turn American audiences on to Kill Bill—or somehow make it feel stale—only the next few weeks will reveal.
If nothing else, Vol. 1 is undeniably a fan-boy's paradise, with cinematic references sprouting like so many mushrooms. In fact, the movie's huge press kit reads rather like one of those skeleton keys to Ulysses or Finnegans Wake that help explain Joyce's countless cultural allusions. Explaining Tarantino's every intention—he's a man who wants to be understood—it makes a nerdish point of telling us that the glass nightclub floor at the House of Blue Leaves comes from Seijun Suzuki's hallucinatory 1965 gangster pic Tokyo Drifter, and that the young Japanese actress who plays Go Go Yubari ventured a similar role in the late Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale. While I don't have the faintest idea whether Kill Bill will be a hit or a bomb, I do guarantee this: Original copies of this 69-page document will one day fetch a pretty penny on eBay.
Kill Bill, Vol. 1 was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; produced by Tarantino and Lawrence Bender; and stars Uma Thurman, Daryl Hannah and Lucy Liu. Now playing at Edwards South Coast Village.
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